OP-ED: MSO must find life after Stewart for company to survive

Among all the unsolicited advice Martha Stewart has received since her indictment, none is perhaps more insidiously dangerous to her business than that contained in the well-intentioned messages from her media friends.

Among all the unsolicited advice Martha Stewart has received since her indictment, none is perhaps more insidiously dangerous to her business than that contained in the well-intentioned messages from her media friends.

It goes something like this: Martha - if Michael Milken, Jimmy Swaggart, and Donald Trump can survive scandal and financial setbacks, so can you. Whatever the outcome of the trial, you can bounce back, survive, and prosper. Play the sympathy card and wear the mantle of the vulnerable maverick, the victim of frustrated regulators too eager for a celebrity scalp. And as the creative guru, you can still exercise your Svengali-like influence on the business, and everything will soon be back in apple pie order, right? Perhaps so, but is all this really all about Martha? Is this advice really what they need to hear at the New York headquarters of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia on 42nd Street? The real question surfaced by this melodrama is a vital one for the long-term future of the business and, therefore, its shareholders (Martha Stewart included): Is there life beyond Martha for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia? One of the most notoriously difficult second acts in business is surviving beyond the founder and namesake. Most companies never make it. The ones that do - Ford, Hewlett-Packard, Disney, Ogilvy & Mather, Chanel, etc. - all had, without exception, developed an infinitely extendable business platform that went beyond the talent, imagination, and reputation of one individual. Take Dell Computer, for example: If founder Michael Dell were hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow, chances are his company would survive the initial panic because it's based on a proven business model and run by a capable management team. The Dell brand is not based on Michael Dell, but on his business model. Nearer home, Ralph Lauren, another purveyor of fantasy lifestyle, has carefully created the self-sustaining Polo brand, his own image of gracious living, independent of his personal image. The fact is that Martha Stewart isn't really a brand as much as a forceful personality who has successfully packaged and marketed herself and her ideas through Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which is why the business is so dependent on her - she is the business. In the 2002 annual report, President and COO Sharon Patrick states, "Our fundamental strategy from day one has been to evolve the Martha Stewart brand from expert personality and visionary, to quality products, to trusted brand labels." Now that Martha has stepped down as chairman and CEO, and assumed the role of chief creative officer, it is the ideal time for the company to extend the logic of this strategy and formalize a future in which Martha, the brand, assumes a life apart from Martha, the individual. By institutionalizing Martha's creative ethos as a clear brand vision to drive all creative activity, the business would be free to innovate and grow horizontally instead of vertically mining the Martha brand to the point of exhaustion. A broader-based, multi-brand strategy in which Martha Stewart, instead of being the only one, could be one of many brand properties, also would indicate a future not constrained by the ideas, or fate, of one individual. The company already has taken a tentative step down this road by hiring Marc Morrone and taking over production of his nationally syndicated television show. Then there's the company name, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. It's a mouthful, a decidedly inelegant piece of nomenclature consisting of three separate ideas - Martha Stewart, Living, and Omnimedia. It is not the name of a coherent corporate entity. The firm is presented as an afterthought, an organizational apparatus for the Martha Stewart brand, found only with some difficulty as 'MSO' buried under the strawberry and tangerine tones of marthastewart.com. Martha Stewart Living is the name of the magazine. Is the brand Martha Stewart, or Martha Stewart Living? Is the company Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, or MSO? There is room for some brand house cleaning here. Whatever the result, the trial and its outcome clearly have to be managed within a PR context. But why wait on a verdict over which you have no control? As much as customers and investors might cheer, an acquittal is not a strategy. When you finally get to the Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia home page, there's yet another picture of Martha. This time she's delicately holding a basket of eggs. She of all people should know never to put all her eggs in one basket.
  • Alan Brew is principal of Addison, a creative communication and design firm with offices in New York and San Francisco.

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