PhotoMy company, Brand Keys, is pretty much the worlds expert when it comes to the Martha Stewart brand. This isn'’t braggadocio. It’'s true. It all came about back in 1998. 

At the time we weren’'t focused on the Stewart brand, but the Kmart brand. Back then we (along with most market analysts) observed that Kmart was having difficulties establishing any real brand equity and differentiation and profits in the marketplace.

Competitors like Wal-Mart and Target were putting stress on a Kmart brand structure that pretty much wasn’'t up to code in the first place and, the more we looked for something – -- anything --– that Kmart might leverage in the marketplace, what revealed itself was the Martha Stewart brand. And the fact that the Martha Stewart brand was essentially the only thing bolstering the Kmart brand at that time. That’'s when we started tracking the Stewart brand – which was riding very high, seriously and regularly.

In 2002 Ms. Stewart and her brand ran into their own problems that ultimately led to court and then to a prison term for the human brand. By then we had tracked the brand through its highs, lows, very very lows, and its slow return to a reasonable, albeit weaker, brand and financial health. 

Consumers trusted her

PhotoMs. Stewart was always creative and entrepreneurial and consumers trusted her opinions and vision. When her legal problems hit the front pages of every newspaper in the world, Ms. Stewart characterized it as a personal problem, separate and apart from the brand.

But as Ms. Stewart was the brand, consumers had a hard time separating the two. And, when trust in the human brand eroded, so did trust in the products and service that bore her name, and the company ran into financial difficulties of its own. 

But that'’s marketing history. Today, Ms. Stewart and the brand are alive and well.
In fact, we’'d go so far as to say that “Martha Stewart” has, in the most positive sense, become a “default brand.” By that we mean that it is imbued with enough meaning and enough value to provide more than an adequate foundation for virtually any product or service that would avail themselves of the name. 

And with a default brand it'’s easier and more profitable for retailers to rely upon and/or franchise the “Martha Stewart” name than to try and establish a new brand or leverage a store brand for precisely the same products or services. That is, after all the raison d’'etre of brand --– to act as a surrogate for added-value and differentiation, either for the product or the retailer, or both, depending upon the circumstances. All this came to mind as the new lawsuit regarding Ms. Stewart seems to be coming to a head. 

J.C. Penney April 8, 2013, 7:23 p.m.
Consumers rate J.C. Penney

Macy’'s has accused J.C. Penney of entering into an illegal licensing agreement with Stewart'’s company and wants J.C. Penney stopped from selling a line of Stewart-designed home goods like linens and kitchenware and bath products, which have already been manufactured and are wending their way to J.C. Penney shelves as you read this. Now if the case goes against them, J.C. Penney will have to come up with substitutes for those products. And those substitutes would have to be sold under J.C. Penney store private labels. 

Which brings us back to the issue of brands and added-value. Which would you pay more for -- a Martha Stewart set of bedding, or a JCP Home set of bedding? But it'’s also been reported that, trying to circumvent any previous licensing agreements with Macy'’s, J.C. Penney has kept the Stewart name off most of the products and those will be sold under the aegis of JCP Everyday.

So how would you know that it’s actually something from Martha Stewart? Doesn’'t the label count for something? Given two sets of 400-thread count sheets available in a palate of spring colors, would you be able to identify which set had been “designed” by Martha Stewart? And if you couldn'’t, would it matter?

It was Mark Twain who noted, “He goes by the brand, yet imagines he goes by the flavor.” What flavors do you think Martha Stewart comes in?


Robert Passikoff is President of Brand Keys, a research consultancy.

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