Can Lisa Gersh Bring a Boost to Martha Stewart Brand?

Oxygen Co-founder Joins MSLO as It Considers Strategic Alternatives

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Martha Stewart has long been able to tell her fans when she's got hold of "a good thing." But is she still one herself?

An announcement Wednesday by her namesake corporation, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, put heavy emphasis on that question. The company retained investment firm Blackstone Advisory Partners "to review and respond to various parties that have expressed interest in potentially partnering with or investing in the Company, as well as exploring other opportunities." The company said it had "no guarantee" that any sort of transaction would take place.

But the move suggests Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia feels thwarted in recent attempts to bolster its business. The company hasn't enjoyed easy sledding in recent years, what with Ms. Stewart's stay in jail earlier in the decade, difficult trends in print advertising, and the lackluster performance of a block of Martha Stewart-themed programming on Hallmark Channel's daytime schedule.

New strategy might treat brand founder as a Betty Crocker figure.
New strategy might treat brand founder as a Betty Crocker figure.

The job of guiding the company falls to Lisa Gersh, co-founder of the Oxygen cable network who was its president and chief operating office form 1998 until 2007, when the network was acquired by NBC Universal. She joins the company as its president and chief operating officer June 6, and is slated to become CEO within 12 to 20 months.

One top priority, said Ms. Gersh, is to bolster the company's presence in international markets. "That's certainly on top of my list," she said. She hoped to use relationships Martha Stewart Living already has overseas thanks to its publishing and TV ventures in different countries to build more business.

She also cautioned against investors reading too much into today's announcement regarding Blackstone. While "the company is open to everything," she said, she suggested Blackstone would help Martha Stewart Living manage an ongoing stream of requests and approaches aimed at establishing strategic partnerships.

Those partnerships are what could help the company grow, suggested one branding consultant. "While Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia's TV and publishing operations have been challenged, its merchandising division is still growing and has favorable long-term prospects," said Denis Riney, exec VP-marketing at BrandLogic, a Wilton, Conn., branding consultancy. "Her notorious personal behavior will always be a millstone around the firm's reputation as long as she's a part of it, but I suspect it will have minimal financial impact on the brand's ultimate value."

Ms. Stewart, a domestic-arts doyenne who has largely created her own business based on passion and entrepreneurialism, is a closely followed figure and her story is a famous one. After leaving the Time Inc. empire to start her own company, Ms. Stewart ran aground, after being convicted in March of 2004 of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and lying to federal investigators in a stock-trading case.

Since that time, branding experts have long suggested her company move beyond the person who founded it, relying less on media properties featuring Ms. Stewart and more on products that are emblematic of the attributes she espouses: quality, passion, perfection. Over time, however, that strategy would treat Ms. Stewart -- still an active entertainer and media figure -- more like Betty Crocker than a live person. She also remains the largest shareholder in her company. She is slated to rejoin the company's board of directors in the third quarter of this year. In prepared statements, Ms. Stewart said she looked "forward to working with Lisa as well as the entire board" and that she fully supported the retention of Blackstone "to take our business and iconic brand to the next level."

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