Miss Martha Is Still in the Thick of It All

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In the song “Martha, My Dear,” the Beatles sing “When you find yourself in the thick of it, help yourself to a bit of what is all around you.”  Written by Paul McCartney about his Old English Sheepdog, the lyrics seem apt.

The Martha in question here is of course Martha Stewart, once deemed the Doyenne of Domesticity but more recently someone who is on a first name basis in…well, just about everything it seems. From her beginnings as a wedding caterer in the Waspy hallows of Connecticut, Stewart has built a career virtually unparalleled in the annals of licensed branding. And now, at age 81, she shows no signs of slowing down, with new initiatives in everything from CBD and tequila to restaurants, clothing and an endorsement for a bottled water brand called Liquid Death. She is indeed helping herself to more than “a bit” of what is all around her.

Martha is relentless, driven beyond the beyond and always looking for the next thing. Which is where we find her today, lending her name to CBD products with her incongruous, good friend Snoop Dog, endorsing Liquid Death.

Celebrities, designers and the Kardashians have always found the more the merrier when it comes to lending their name to goods and services…as long as there was a generous royalty check attached to it. Perhaps the most extreme example was Pierre Cardin, the Italian-born but highly Frenchified fashion designer who reportedly had as many as 1,000 different products carrying his name at his peak. Martha is nowhere near that tally…but she’s working on it.

Dinner With Martha

Her newest venture is a just-opened restaurant at the Paris Hotel in…not France, but Las Vegas. The Bedford is named after her hometown in Westchester – she has several residences, don’t ya’ know – and while she neither owns nor runs the place, nor is the chef, her name is prominently featured and a major draw for adoring fans and hungry gamblers up and down The Strip.

The restaurant also attracted the attention of New York Times critic Pete Wells who in his review didn’t necessarily buy into the magic of Martha. He called much of the cooking teetered “between boring and careless” and ultimately concluded that the Bedford was “decent enough” but not up to the usual standard one associates with Stewart. “If you happen to eat there,” he writes, “you will not be the first Las Vegas visitor to learn that the house always wins.”

So, let’s talk about winning. Winning has been a hallmark of so many things Stewart’s been involved with since she progressed from decorative party petit fours. She started by writing party planning and cookbooks, but most of us first came across Martha Stewart at Kmart in the 1990s where she helped develop a line of home and housewares for what was then the largest retailer in America. The program was a huge success and at its peak did close to $1 billion a year in retail sales, a record for a private label branded program that most certainly still stands.

The hits came fast and furious during that period. There was Martha Stewart Living magazine, TV series, guest appearances across the broadcast spectrum and eventually Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO), an umbrella organization overseeing it all. She seemed to be everywhere doing everything, but it was all tightly confined and controlled in the general home, food and entertaining space. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most little girls, many little boys and just about all of their parents aspired to be just like Martha. One true thing: She elevated the taste level of markets that were traditionally utilitarian and utterly without imagination.

Jailhouse Martha

Then, as often happens to the rich and famous, she took an unexpected detour. But unlike most rich and famous, this detour was to prison. Convicted of insider trading in 2001 in what now appears to much ado about nothing, she served some time and came out five months later no less Martha…but perhaps a little humbled. That said, she worked on elevating the taste level of her fellow inmates.

Then began a somewhat sketchy period where some of the pieces of MSLO started to break apart. The Kmart program had already ended when according to insiders she wanted a lot more than the retailer was willing to give her. That huge licensing deal was replaced with a number of smaller individual ones, including home merchandise for Macy’s, as well as a variety of assorted goods and services such as pet food, house paint and food and wine products, many of which were short-lived or ultimately insignificant in their success. The TV shows ended, the magazine went online and eventually Martha’s company itself was sold…several times in fact.

But none of this stopped her. Those who know and work with Martha will tell you she is relentless, driven beyond beyond and always looking for the next thing. Which is where we find her today, lending her name to CBD products with her incongruous, good friend Snoop Dog, endorsing Liquid Death, selling a line of apparel under her name, and still turning up on TV guest spots, podcasts, online and at seemingly every social event of prominence in America. Her latest online catalog on her website runs 77 pages.

Martha the Mogul

People magazine recently called her “a lifestyle mogul” and that’s probably as accurate a description as any. In fact, she is no longer identified as Martha Stewart, going by simply “Martha” these days. All of which begs the question of what happens next. Though certainly not a kid anymore she shows no signs of slowing down. But at some point, will she enter the realm of brand personas like Liz Claiborne, Walt Disney, Colonel Sanders or Pierre Cardin all of which live on beyond the actual person?

Given the ubiquity that now exists it wouldn’t seem unreasonable. It is the ultimate pantheon in branding when the name lives on long after the person doesn’t. There is, after all, only one Martha Stewart…even if there are many, many Martha Stewarts you can buy. Martha my dear, indeed.



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