There is an old adage that “No publicity is bad publicity.” Nobody knows that better than Martha Stewart.
Whatever we may think of her controversial past, we are likely overlooking how Ms. Stewart ultimately benefitted from and overcame her brand’s bad publicity. In particular, if we look at the history of her brand and the changes that it underwent after her 2004 conviction, I think we can all come away with some applicable steps that will help us to grow our own brands.
The Early Days
Martha Stewart has a unique story. Having started as a stockbroker in the ‘60s, she moved into the catering industry in the mid-70s, from which she wrote her first book, Entertaining, in 1982. It wasn’t until 1990, when she was 49 years old, that she launched her first magazine, Martha Stewart Living, the beginning of what we would consider to be her current line of work.
Throughout the 1990s she did much to move forward with the brand: launching her TV show, Martha Stewart Living, in 1995, another magazine, Martha Stewart Weddings, in 1995 and a partnership with Kmart in the US and Sears in Canada to sell home goods through their retail stores.
The cumulative effect was quite successful. In 1999 the company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, went public valued at $1.8 billion. But then, only a few years later, in 2002, reports of Martha Stewart’s potential insider trading gains surfaced, and in 2004 she was found guilty and convicted of obstructing justice by lying to federal investigators. Many declared that it was the end of Martha Stewart’s empire.
But it wasn’t. In fact, in many ways, we could argue that it was just the beginning and that her conviction and highly-publicized prison term were the launching pad that elevated her brand from homemaker status to that of a celebrity household name.
Keep in mind that I am not advocating breaking the law or suggesting that Ms. Stewart intended to do so for profit. However, what we can learn from her brand history is that sometimes our greatest setbacks could be the beginning of a very prosperous future.
In 2005, Ms. Stewart completed her five-month prison sentence and returned to her home where she spent the next two years under house arrest. But with Martha Stewart, house arrest (or prison time for that matter) is never synonymous with idleness.
Instead, in 2005 her TV show was rebranded to the Martha Stewart Showand shortly afterwards to simply Martha. Late in 2005 she released a set of instructional DIY DVDs. In 2007, she launched a line of home goods products - purportedly 2,000 different items - designed and sold exclusively through Macy’s. That year she also began to sell Martha Stewart-branded craft items in Michael’s and Wal-Mart stores.
The following year she began to sell branded wines in cooperation with E&J Gallo. She forged a partnership with FLOR, Inc, to manufacture and market Martha Stewart-branded eco-friendly carpet tiles. Today, her branded products are in both Home Depot and PetSmart.
Besides her own TV show, she has also made numerous other television appearances: on Ugly Betty, on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and as a regular contributor on the Todayshow. Most recently, in 2016, she starred in a show, Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party, in a 2017 Super Bowl commercial for T-Mobile, as a recurring judge (beginning in 2018) on the cooking show, Chopped.
Disseminating the Past
If we stand back from this history, there are several things that we can extract.
The first is that, while she was very successful pre-(2002-2005), her market was primarily limited to homemakers. Her TV show was a daytime one, likely to be viewed only by homemakers and a few others who were at home during the day; her magazine was aimed at household cooks, decorators and organizers. Her Weddings magazine and her home goods that were sold through Kmart & Sears were her only truly viable means of reaching the rest of the population, and those only did so to a limited extent. How many times, in one person’s life, does he or she buy Martha Stewart Weddings? What her brand lacked, prior to 2005, was a very pervasive market reach.
Second, what Ms. Stewart obtained as a result of her conviction and prison sentence - like it or not - was publicity. Not just a publicity across her historical demographic, but rather, publicity across men, women, homemakers and corporate businesspeople of all ages. And everyone in between. Anyone in a grocery store, or watching the news, was likely to have heard of her and to have known something of her marketing history.
What Ms. Stewart did was to leverage that effect in order to compensate for what she had previously lacked. Rather than simply homemakers and the occasional bride-to-be, now every person who cooks, shops at Macy’s, Michael’s, Wal-Mart, PetSmart or Home Depot, watches mainstream TV, drinks wine or purchases eco-friendly flooring is likely to be acquainted with Martha Stewart. Her brand is even associated with communities of homes built by KB Home.
While the average DIY guru, in the aftermath of international controversy, might have crawled into a full-scale gingerbread house and wiled away her days creating origami napkin place settings, Ms. Stewart most likely counted on three things:
1. That many people would be sympathetic to her cause and/or would forgive her in the long-run. After all, regardless of the legitimacy of her crimes, there were no bodies in the basement.
2. Time tends to erase the memories of most people. At the very worst, positive steps taken today, do much to de-emphasize the past and to cast the brand in a new light.
3. What’s the harm in trying? The only alternative is to give up and Ms. Stewart isn’t the type to go down without a fight.
That leads us to a third element that we can extract from her experience: the Martha Stewart brand remained consistent. Though her demographic has certainly expanded and her product base is ever improving, she didn’t move from Kmart to Bergdorf. She moved her products up market from Kmart to Macy’s and outward, across new demographics.
Her brand has always focused on everyday life - the products, steps and advice that help the average person to have a beautiful, organized home, a thoughtful table and a stylish lifestyle. And that hasn’t changed. If anything, she has capitalized off of her own misfortune in order to give her brand the space it needed to branch out into so many other areas.
Of course, none of this has to come on the heels of a widely-publicized indictment, but in Martha Stewart’s case, publicity was the tool that she had to work with. And out of it she built a larger empire. If you find yourself with unwanted publicity, do what Ms. Stewart did.
1. Own up to the unfortunate circumstances. Rather than masking her prison time in shame, Martha chose to spend her time behind bars making crafts (look up her prison nativity scene). Even eleven years later, when she marketed her new TV show with Snoop Dogg, she playfully appeared in the advertisements wearing a blue and white striped shirt - a whimsical reference to her former time behind bars. [For my millennial readers: long before the days of Orange is the New Black, inmates wore black and white striped apparel.]
2. Ask yourself what your brand has lacked in the past. Is it publicity in general? Have you struggled to reach a certain demographic? Whatever it is, look for ways to leverage your current or recent struggle so that, in the future, your brand can reach a wider market or gain a new, improved reputation.
3. Don’t forget who you are - as a company and as a brand. Though some may declare that a brand will never rebound, there are often ways to move forward without losing all of the ground that you have gained in the past.
Whatever struggles you and I encounter, my hope is that we, like Martha Stewart, will be able to come out on the other side, stronger and better for it. It’s possible that these are the very things that will give us a fresh start in a more prosperous direction.