HotProperty: Martha

HotProperty: Martha

Martha, we hardly knew you were gone

When reality TV guru Mark Burnett announced plans for a revival of Martha Stewart's syndicated cooking and style show at a press conference last December, a poster of the company's namesake hovered over him. It showed Stewart during happier times, confident and fresh-faced as she prepped one of her culinary concoctions. The irony wasn't lost on any of the attendees: physically present or not, the self-styled doyenne of domesticity loomed large over the proceedings.

With Stewart set to be released from federal prison in March - she must serve five months of home confinement immediately thereafter - it's no surprise that Martha Stewart Omnimedia (MSO) is shifting comeback plans into high gear.

Beyond the syndicated show, there's talk of a primetime reality program on NBC, a book, and a series of high-profile interviews. Left out of many of these discussions, however, has been the media community. Simply put, will advertisers embrace the scandal-tainted brand?

To hear pundits tell it, it's more likely than not that they will. While nearly every person prefaces his or her remarks by saying that more risk-averse marketers won't return right away, most believe that the Martha Stewart brand will eventually return to prominence.

"She'll come back stronger than when she left," says Alan Adamson, managing director of brand identity firm Landor Associates. "Back then, everybody knew her story. Now, because she's weathered the storm, she has a new dimension of authenticity, and authenticity is what her brand has always been about."

Experts cite a handful of reasons for their belief that the Martha Stewart brand has survived the legal struggles of its namesake. To begin with, no single company filled the void during the last two or three years. Real Simple may have elbowed aside Martha Stewart Living at newsstands, but beyond that no MSO property was clearly trumped by a competitor.

Too, the quality of MSO products has remained high during Stewart's darkest hour. Sales of her Kmart housewares line didn't dip appreciably, for instance. And while advertisers may have abandoned Martha Stewart Living, its renewal/retention rates actually increased. The overall message: readers still like products bearing the Martha Stewart imprint, even if they may have temporarily soured on Martha herself.

Last December's press conference was viewed by most as the first component in the brand-resuscitation campaign - and given the glut of coverage and buzz in the days that followed, it seems to have accomplished its goal. Beyond the obvious "full, incredible transparency in everything they do," says David Gardner, cofounder of The Motley Fool, observers are split on what should come next. Many believe that Stewart should be treated as a product that's about to be relaunched.

"They have to look at this as 'Martha 2,' as if she's been taken back to the factory and rebuilt," Adamson says. Others, however, caution against too many changes, citing the 10-plus years of hard-earned brand equity that MSO has accumulated. "It's not like the brand was tarnished because of advice she was giving around the home," Gardner argues. "You don't hear 'I won't take her around-the-house advice because of a stock trade a Merrill Lynch broker made.'"

Morris Reid, managing director of public-affairs firm Westin Rinehart, believes that Stewart has to go out of her way to express appreciation for her supporters - not considered one of her preferred activities prior to the ImClone ordeal. "The fact that she went to prison humanized her," he notes, recommending a series of in-store appearances in secondary markets.

Securing Burnett to helm the revamped syndicated show was considered a huge victory for MSO properties. Media people expect the show to be a quick sell, even for semi-skittish advertisers. They're less certain about the immediate future of Martha Stewart Living, Martha Stewart Weddings, and Everyday Food.

On one hand, the three titles continue to deliver desirable and involved readers in a high-quality editorial environment. "For some advertisers, that's what matters. The fact that Martha Stewart's in jail won't make a difference," says Rebecca McPheters, president of magazine consultancy McPheters and Co.

On the other hand, several home-themed magazines offer a comparably high readership and first-class environment. "Some people have to be thinking 'why should I be associated with something that's bad news when I have so many other choices?'" asks media/marketing consultant and former MediaCom executive Valerie Muller.

So 2005 will likely prove a transition year for MSO. The TV companion to "Everyday Food" began airing on PBS stations in January, and a wedding-themed show for E!'s Style network is set to debut in the second quarter. By the time Stewart returns to the airwaves in September, the company hopes to have reclaimed advertisers that left during the legal skirmish.

Of course, the one thing that can accelerate or stall the recovery process is Martha herself. Given her prior history of public prickliness, the Martha-watchers will be out in full force.

"It's all about how she comes across in the first 30 days. The first salvo of appearances will be huge," Adamson says. "If she comes across as together and focused and contrite, it'll be terrific. If she's arrogant and aloof, all bets are off."

MSO representatives failed to respond to repeated interview requests.

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