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Friday, March 05, 2004

Martha Stewart wins again

March 2004, is the month that will go down in history as "the beginning of the end of corporate piracy." Of course, nothing could be further from the truth: corporate pirates have succeeded in sacking the public treasuries and trusts for centuries now. The media, on the other hand, would have you believe that with Martha Stewart's conviction, those days are done. Over. Never to see the sun rise again.

Poppycock.

I happened to spend the last few days on the phone with all kinds of reporters asking me what the conviction means to Martha Stewart's brand. Seems that every hack and their mother is predicting the demise of one of America's most successful female entrepreneurs, simply because she got nailed in court.

Double poppycock.

Martha's not going away and neither is her brand. Like Y2K, this is a non-story that's been fueled by the media. And just like Y2K, it will all be forgotten just as soon as another big story hits (if I were a betting man, I'd put a week's pay on the Bush administration trotting out a big time terrorist in manacles just before the November election, but that's another story). So why is everyone making such a fuss about Martha Stewart, and what could this possibly have to do with your own brand?

A lot. And here are just a few reasons why:

First, the media pundits would have you believe that Martha Stewart going to jail (which will likely never happen) is a long-waited punishment which the public demands. Nothing could be further from the truth. The media pundits clearly have no understanding of what a brand is or does, and certainly have no understanding of how Martha's brand differs from everyone else's. The reason why Martha Stewart's brand is as strong as it is can be found in how her users take personal ownership of her brand. They relate to Martha. To her following, Martha has touched their lives and made those lives better. Ask any of her brand loyalists and they'll tell you that Martha understands their lives, which is why they listen to her, follow her advice and buy her products.

In the same vein, they personalize Martha herself. They look at her as they look at themselves and judge her no more harshly. To them, the question isn't, "How could she have lied?" The question is, "Hey, who HASN'T told a white lie before?" And the scary part is they're right.

Martha Stewart's crime isn't nearly the same thing as say, Ken Lay's or Bernie Ebbers - and I went on national radio to say so. Lay and Ebbers actually stole huge sums of money - tens of millions of dollars - from shareholders. Lay drained Enron and Ebbers soaked WorldCom, both of them leaving thousands of shareholders' and employees' lives in shambles. Good people whose retirements were staked in the trust of corporate pirates got hosed, big time. Wiped out. No recourse.

Who did Martha Stewart steal from? Nobody. She got nailed for covering up a phone message that linked her to selling $50K worth of stock before the stock price dropped. That's fifty thousand dollars of her own money. Not an employee's. Not a shareholder's. Fifty thousand bucks, which to her, works out to about what a cab ride through the city is for you and me.

Meanwhile, the reporters keep calling me, asking whether Martha's brand is on the ropes and whether she can survive this crisis. As you can see, the answer is a clear "you betcha", but "you betcha" with a qualified "if." Martha can survive IF the morons in the media, Wall Street and her own executive management chambers can truly understand how strong Martha's brand is. The problem here is that (A) they DON'T understand it and (B) these are people who are motivated by fear, not brand strategy. One whiff of bad press and these lemmings will be darting out of there faster than rats on a sinking ship.

FOX News brought in someone who isn't a branding expert but plays one on TV. He's actually a brand LICENSING guy; whose main trade is slapping logos on to merchandise for an appropriate fee. Hardly what you'd call an branding strategist, yet here he was on a national news show, pontificating how MSO should "do what they can to distance themselves from Martha." Incredible. Precisely the kind of tomfoolery that could actually kill the brand. People might actually believe this guy.

All of which brings us to how Martha Stewart affects your brand:

First, I hope you all have learned what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. Don't lie to anyone. It isn't nice and it could land you in jail, or at the very least, a well-decorated halfway house. Second, seriously look at the question of Martha Stewart, the brand. You may recall how past editions of FrankelTips have pointed out the pros and cons of nailing a brand too close to your personal identity. You may also recall how I've advised that when you are the brand, the brand must be you. The beauty of Martha Stewart's brand is that the brand is Martha. There is no brand without here. There may be a company, but without that brand, there are no evangelists, because there is nobody to evangelize.

In other words, Martha has branded herself so closely to the company that only a madman would even think of distancing her from the company. To do so would kill the goose the laid the golden egg. Martha knows it. Her customers know it. Now if only the lemmings in the business and media worlds figure it out, you have all the makings of a real non-story: in two years, this could all be barely a blip on the radar.

Why does this matter to you? Because when you are the brand, you understand how much of that brand is built on your evangelists' taking a personal stake in your welfare. Martha knows this, which is why she continues to enjoy widespread fan support, despite being fitted for striped evening wear.

The question is, could your brand take that kind of heat and still deliver as well as she does?

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