Commentary by Randall Rothenberg


A Closer Look at the Domesticity Doyenne's Facade

By Published on .

If there is a moral at the end of the Martha Stewart-ImClone saga, it won't pertain to insider trading, market manipulation or media scandal mongering. It will be

Photo: Hoag Levins
One of the largest July 4 parades in New Jersey included a float that showed Martha Stewart in a tastefully decorated jail cell, with a banner that said "Martha Stewart Cell Living." The construction was made by a neighborhood group in Haddonfield, N.J., and pulled by husbands and children dressed in classic striped convict shirts. The float sparked sustained applause and approving jeers along a 1.5-mile parade route in the affluent bedroom community just east of Philadelphia.
> Click to see larger photo.

about the foolishness that traffics under the name "branding."

I'd even submit lesson No. 1 for this era, in which Madison Avenue, Wall Street and Wilshire Boulevard appear to be converging, is: A person is not a brand; a person is a person. Both persons and brands get in trouble when they confuse one with the other.

What we know
To pull some precepts from that axiom, let's deconstruct what we know, and don't know, about Martha's relationship with ImClone and its chief, Sam Waksal (whose Elmerfuddian name alone hints at this cartoonish caper's gravity).

As of this writing (July 1), we don't know whether Martha traded on insider information. We don't know -- there is no hint whatsoever -- that her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, inaccurately inflated revenues or profits or did anything that smacks of the improprieties or infelicities engaged in by Tyco, WorldCom, Adelphia, Andersen and others. We do know her company has been pretty successful. And we know that Omnimedia's shares have plunged about 45% during the past month.

Why have investors fled?
Why have investors fled? Because the scandal-that-isn't exposed the fact that Omnimedia is not even really multimedia: It's a single medium. Her name is Martha, and in the world of Big Business, hers is small-little.

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This is not to demean Ms. Stewart's prodigious success in transforming herself from caterer to company. Her accomplishments speak volumes about the quality of her products, the intensity of her toil and her keen understanding of American desires and consumption patterns at the turn of the century.

However, the current scrutiny has forced people -- from business writers to fund managers -- to confront what was readily available to anyone who cared to do an Edgar search. Omnimedia's revenues are still heavily reliant on a single magazine -- not a great proposition in a consolidating periodicals industry that favors multititle purveyors. The merchandising and licensing operations have expanded only gradually. Other media enterprises still depend almost solely on the living Martha. There doesn't appear to be a significant growth strategy, either to acquire companies that can be "Martha-ed" or to establish flanker brands (like Cheer to Tide, or Mountain Dew to Pepsi).

It ain't Versailles
Put simply, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia may not be a house of cards but it ain't Versailles, either. And Martha Stewart is manifestly not a brand. Not yet.

For something to be a brand, it must possess three, to use an old philosophy term, potentialities. It has to embody a promise, be scalable and be capable of immortality.

Promise is the belief a brand conveys that it can fill a set of human needs. Immortality is the understanding that those needs are enduring, and not subject to the mores of the tempora. Scalability derives from the ability of an institution and its people to support that promise's extension, across product and service lines.

Jesus was a brand
Backed by institutional vigor and possessing a transcendent promise, people can become brands. As BBDO co-founder Bruce Barton argued in his 1925 bestseller, The Man Nobody Knows, Jesus was a man who became a brand. More recently (and more profanely), Walt Disney made the leap.

But hitting the trifecta (promise, scalability, immortality) is rare. On Martha (no double entendre intended), the jury's still out.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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