How Martha Stewart's Brand Lost Its Mojo

Grant McCracken, an anthropologist and an insightful commentator on modernity, offered an intriguing quote recently about Martha Stewart:

"She's the mistress of the semiotic codes dear to the upwardly aspirational middle class… Martha's semiotics were powerful. Fresh flowers. Fresh linens. Fresh colors. And an embargo on all things unsophisticated and déclassé."

To anyone who lived through the 1990s, this quote captures Martha Stewart's brand perfectly.

Except that things change. Eras and generations change. And Martha's brand, at least in that form, simply doesn't click with the Millennial generation. Millennials don't even want to buy homes, much less fill them with fresh linens and flowers. They don't bake. Or read magazines.

But the companies out there selling to us need to keep brands like these alive, alive for as long as they can. This is done by "repositioning" and "staying relevant," both repulsive marketing terms that, to me at least, merely serve to underscore the rampant cynicism infesting the world of branding and consumer products.

As an example: Do you remember Emeril? Remember him and his show, his celebrity cookbooks and celebrity-branded cookware? Do you remember "Bam!"? Martha Stewart's company bought the entire Emeril brand, back in 2008, in a failed effort to stay relevant. Once upon a time Bam! was cool. It helped sell a lot of overpriced cookware. Now nobody remembers.

So how does "Martha Stewart" (as a brand) stay relevant, now that civilization has thankfully moved on from mansions, fresh linens and other pretensions of a lost, pre-financial crisis era? How does Martha sell--and more importantly, what does she sell--to a generation that doesn't even cook?

Back to the cynical parlance of modern media: Martha will "pivot." She'll attach her trusted name to a food delivery service.[1] She will "reposition" her brand by getting on the marijuana bandwagon, doing a bunch of campy skits with Snoop Dogg to sell you trendy cannabis products. All of which will make her "relevant" to today's consumers.

In other words, she'll do anything, literally anything, to sell to you.

Doesn't it make you feel like a sucker, having stuff like this force-fed to you? Do you enjoy being encouraged to chase one branded aspirational lifestyle in one era--only later still to see it replaced by another new, "more relevant" branded aspirational lifestyle in a later era, just so you can chase that too?

The whole thing feels like an extended elaborate joke, played on three generations of consumers.

Timeline of Martha Stewart, her brand, and her companies:
1999: Martha Stewart IPOs her company, market value reaches $1.8b
2003-4: Stewart indicted, convicted and jailed for lying under oath and obstruction of justice in connection with a suspicious sale of shares of Imclone stock, one day before Imclone collapsed in value (due to failing to receive FDA approval for the drug Erbitux).
2005: Martha's comeback: Stewart is released from prison, and over the next few years, her company announces deals to sell Martha Stewart-branded merchandise at Kmart, Macy's and JCPenney, all of which devolve into lawsuits. Later she announces deals to sell merchandise through Petsmart, Michaels and Home Depot.
2011: After serving a five year ban from public markets as part of her conviction settlement with Federal regulators, Martha Stewart rejoins her namesake company's board of directors.
2015: After years of declining ad sales, declining branding revenue and declining circulation of her various publications, Martha Stewart Omnimedia is sold to Sequential Brands [ticker: SQBG] for $350m.
2019: Sequential Brands, collapsing under a mountain of debt, firesales Martha Stewart's brand, as well as the Emeril Legasse brand, for a mere $175 million, [2] less than half what they paid for it just four years earlier, and less than one-tenth of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia's peak valuation. Sequential Brands now trades at penny-stock levels, at approximately 50c a share.
2019: Martha Stewart announces a deal with Canopy Growth Company, a Canada-based cannabis company, to market a line of cannabis supplements and other pot-infused wellness products for pets.

[1] It's hard not to notice the rich irony of Martha Stewart's meal delivery service brand using the slogan "recipes from America's most trusted home cook." As if calling your meal delivery service "home cooking" actually makes it so.

[2] Get ready: now yet another company will likely be ramming a pivoted and repositioned Martha and Emeril in our faces all over again.

READ NEXT: Aspirational Marketing and the Unintended Irony of Pabst Beer

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