JC Penney, now JCP, and Macy’s are at war over Martha Stewart. The Appeals Court ruled recently that Penney could sell Martha Stewart product temporarily, but, not under the Martha Stewart brand name. The question of why the now-departed JCP CEO and former Apple and Target superstar, Ron Johnson, and the lifestyle guru and home goddess, Martha Stewart, agreed on a relationship under the umbrella of the existing Macy’s contract – kind of like having two husbands or wives at the same time – is best left to other experts. But the question of why all the fuss about Martha, why two major and competing retailers are willing to fight for her, goes well beyond the legal challenges. It goes simply to the strength of the Martha Stewart brand which is arguably the leading non-apparel brand in the country, perhaps rivaling only Ralph Lauren in the strength of its conviction, equity, vision and imprimatur of its founder, the inspiration providing, Non-Executive Chairman, and, convicted felon, Martha Stewart.
From her earliest days as a caterer in Westport, Connecticut, Martha Stewart has represented a certain taste level, esthetic, expertise and appeal that has been a constant in all of her iterations from author to spokesperson at Kmart, to magazine editor and publisher, to television personality and purveyor of products that look and feel a certain way. Whether for the very privileged few for whom she designed gorgeous weddings as a caterer and wedding planner years ago, or, to those brides who are introduced to the Martha Stewart esthetic in the quarterly, lavish Weddings magazine and on the Martha Stewart Weddings website; or, to homemakers who are willing to cut out centerpieces and decorations made of Martha Stewart crepe paper; or to put their cupcakes in Martha Stewart die-cut treat holders; or, for those who buy Martha Stewart Living paint, kitchen cabinets or outdoor furniture at Home Depot; or buy Martha Stewart Crafts glitter, glue, ribbon and scissors at Michaels Stores — Martha Stewart cuts across all economic bounds and is the brand of choice for people who care about their homes and their surroundings, and ascribe, or want to ascribe, to Martha Stewart’s very specific esthetic.
Martha Stewart shows her customers, many of them devotees, how to get the look she represents with information in multimedia platforms through her company Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO), the “leading provider of original ‘how-to’ information, inspiring and engaging consumers with unique lifestyle content and beautifully designed, high-quality products.” The fact that the company, MSLO, continues to lose money does not deter loyal customers from loving Martha, devouring her advice, and buying Martha Stewart branded product across so many retail channels.
The truth is Martha knows her stuff. Martha Stewart magazines, television shows, and blog entries are filled with useful, and not-so-useful, bits of information on everything from horticulture to paint colors to poppy seeds. Martha — her very exacting self — lives her brand from her home base in Pound Ridge to her outposts in East Hampton and Maine. Martha Stewart doesn’t just make this stuff up; she is the expert who can do it all — albeit with lots of help from top-tier professional gardeners and contractors, editors and writers, sous-chefs and producers.
The Martha Stewart brand does have a unique selling proposition – information, expertise, taste, quality — as well as a unique distribution strategy that spans product categories and retail and manufacturing partnerships. It is one of the only brands that combines product with media and information. Martha Stewart (MSLO) controls the design of all Martha Stewart content and all Martha Stewart merchandise including its packaging, signage and collateral material, but it maintains no inventory. But, make no mistake, Martha Stewart (MSLO) is a branding machine which does maintain control of all aspects of its most valuable asset, the Martha Stewart brand.
Martha Stewart stands alone among American brands in the non-apparel categories. It is unique in the merging of product and information, offering this combination to customers across retail channels and media including broadcast, print and digital formats. Martha Stewart continues to churn out information of all kinds that customers love. Will customers still love her product when not sold under the brand name, Martha Stewart, but instead under the JCP brand, Everyday? Will customers get the Martha Stewart message in better product, clean design and a sense of value without the added value and cue of the Martha Stewart brand name? I for one don’t think so. Will JCP win, or, will Macy’s prevail? Who knows? As they say, the jury, or, in this case, the judge, is out.
One thing though seems certain. The Martha Stewart brand is worth the fight. It means traffic, sales and profit to the current retail and manufacturer partners who source, produce and sell it. And fun and inspiration to the consumers who love it. Martha Stewart is a solid, highly successful brand that has no peer in the home categories. It is no wonder Ron Johnson saw it as a way to transform Penney into something else. And he will certainly take the blame if it fails. One person who won’t lose though is Martha Stewart. Regardless of the outcome at Penney, the Martha Stewart brand will remain intact, and, will still be worth fighting for.