OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

If Shakespeare were around today, perhaps he would write: "What's in a name brand?", given the power of branding to sell products. So popular has it become that individuals are urged to: "Be your own brand. Advice that has been followed assiduously in the US by the likes of the talkshow host Oprah Winfrey, the sex adviser Dr Ruth Westheimer, the chef Emeril Lagasse and the style doyenne Martha Stewart.

It is Stewart whose brand is now under siege in the wake of an insider-trading scandal centred on her suspicious sale of stock in a friend's company, ImClone, a day before bad news was disclosed that sent the share price sinking. It's estimated that Stewart saved about $46,500 by selling when she did, but compare that with the loss on paper that she's suffered in the value of her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, since her plight became the stuff of intensive media scrutiny: about $250 million.

Stewart parlayed an interest in cooking and catering into a one-woman empire that extends across multiple media, including magazines, books, newspapers, syndicated TV and radio shows, appearances on the CBS TV network and catalogues. She also sells millions of dollars worth of Martha Stewart-branded home, decorating and craft merchandise through licensing agreements with retailers.

She always has been the kind of entrepreneur who many love to hate. It's become a cottage industry to mock key elements of her brand image: the sophisticated simplicity, the cheery striving to have and do it all, the relentlessly upper-middle-class taste levels. Yet the more Stewart was picked on and picked apart, the more she thrived - until now.

Already there are murmurings that many marketers purchasing commercial time and ad space in her magazines and TV shows are growing anxious enough over the considerable damage to her brand to start rethinking those media buys. There are always plenty of American advertisers that seek to avoid controversy of any kind at all costs, particularly those peddling mainstream products with blue-chip brand names - in other words, Stewart's present core supporters.

There are myriad competitive print and broadcast properties that could easily be bought as alternatives to hers. They'd welcome any and all defectors with open arms as they seek to bolster revenue while awaiting the long-promised advertising recovery.

As for Stewart's recovery, she is finally taking steps to address the crisis. The New York office of the UK's Brunswick Group will advise her company on how to deal with what was euphemistically described as the "short-term business impact of the flap.

For decades, Ladies' Home Journal, a magazine that offers more traditional home-and-hearth coverage than Stewart's publications, has run a feature titled: "Can This Marriage Be Saved? If the same query is asked about the Stewart brand, the answer at this time would have to be oxymoronic: a definite maybe.

Stewart herself is so central to the success or failure of her empire that the negative publicity, if it continues at this level, cannot help but besmirch her brand. It's been said that Don Logan, the chief executive of Time Inc, declined to invest in Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia because he wondered what would happen if she were hit by a bus. Such an awful accident may actually be preferable to the half-hysterical, half-hilarious media attention to which Stewart has been subjected. Few brands, human or otherwise, are capable of overcoming that.


Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus