She Owns It
Martha Stewart became a consumer and lifestyle scion because she boldly suggested ambitious ideas without apology. She knows who she is and she knows when she leans into it, it captures the imagination, creates conversation, and gives her brand character.
In the early days of the insider trading accusations, the press skewered Martha Stewart for conducting interviews on a kitchen set. One journalist called it comical and said it was a bad PR move because it connected the scandal to her lifestyle image. But looking back at it, that was a fantastic choice. Martha Stewart always maintained her innocence throughout her trial and sentence. By calmly and coolly talking about the situation on her home turf, doing things she was comfortable doing, she takes the air out of the accusations and speaks straight to her fans. Stewart’s famously coy aloofness also helped. When she smiles, there’s always been this subtext that she knows more than she’s telling. That’s her superpower, and it leaves everyone hanging on for the next great recipe or design idea. Martha’s clever use of mystery is PR wielded in an expert fashion, despite over-exposure to her consumer products.
Skewered as she was, Wall Street believed in her. While she was in prison, her Martha Stewart Living (MSLO) stock jumped 70%. When Stewart emerged from her five-month jail sentence, she didn’t hide as many people would have. She went straight to the daytime talk shows and showed everyone her ankle bracelet. By the time she launches her show, a mere six months after her release, she premiers the show as “free and unfettered,” now that her ankle bracelet is gone. Throughout the entire experience, Stewart refused to be shamed, even when she was found guilty. It takes courage to pull that off, but Stewart never wavered, and it worked for her.
She Says “Yes”
There are two strategies for building a brand. The first is cool aloofness, and the second is relentless exposure. Stewart is the second. Being a caterer sounds like a sexy job but also incredible work. But Stewart kept saying yes. As a caterer, Steward contributed to The New York Times and served as the newspaper’s food and entertainment editor. Six years after launching her successful celebrity catering company, she published her first book and never stopped working. She publishes more books—99 at this writing, a monthly magazine, and pre-and post—jail time TV shows, not to mention thousands of media interviews and call-ins to everyone from Howard Stern to Sirius talk radio shows after launching her talk radio show, Martha Stewart is the hardest working woman in show business. Build success upon success; that’s this PR lesson for consumer brands.
But it’s more than that. She makes her brand work for her, instead of working for her brand. Stewart elevates accessible partners like Kmart and Walmart with affordable lifestyle merchandise without losing her aspirational panache. The Martha Stewart PR lesson for consumer brands is to create an aspirational brand and then make it accessible once the brand is established.
She’s In on The Joke
Another consumer product PR lesson is to partner wisely. At 80 years old, she partnered with Snoop Dog in ads for Bic lighters. Again, her coy presence gives it charm, while Snoop Dog gives it an edge. Their partnership created more press than the lighter itself, but I don’t think Bic minds sharing the real estate with two completely different lifestyle icons.
When Stewart was sentenced to jail, Saturday Night Live famously debuted a cold open of a topless Martha Stewart. Her response? Once she was released from prison, she was mad that her parole officer wouldn’t let her host the famously cheeky show. She’s said that one of her “big (career) regrets” is not hosting the show yet. Martha Stewart knows certain cultural touchstones resonate and lock in your place in lifestyle history – SNL is one of those, and she’s not done reaching.
Martha Stewart was always in on the joke, and that allowed her to have fun with her brand – another excellent consumer product PR lesson.
Still the “Guru of Good Taste,” Martha Stewart knows she’s not 42 anymore, but she also knows she can bust down boundaries with her timeless approach to humor.
Martha Stewart has been celebrated, vilified, laughed at, and skewered, but with a remarkable eye on PR, she’s turned all of that into an asset for herself. Today, Martha Stewart Living Omnicom is a publicly traded company worth billions, and she has a net worth of around $400 million. From thought leadership to consumer product scion, Martha Stewart has captured our imaginations with savvy consumer PR strategies.