Take a tip from Martha: A person is not a brand

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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 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.

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 sold ImClone shares based on insider information. We do know her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, has been pretty successful. And we know that Omnimedia's shares have plunged about 45% during the past month even though there is no hint whatsoever that it inaccurately inflated revenues or profits or did anything that smacks of the improprieties or infelicities engaged in by Tyco, WorldCom, Adelphia, Andersen and others.

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.

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 multi-title 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).

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.

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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