Remaining a household name for nearly three decades takes more than cooking skills. Here’s Martha Stewart’s story, and her 10 rules for executive leaders in the financial industry.
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Meet Martha Stewart: Business Titan & Branding Icon
By Jeffry Pilcher
CEO/President & FounderThe Financial Brand
If there is one word that defines Martha Stewart, it is resilience. You don’t learn much about someone when everything is going great. But it’s how they face adversity that reveals their true character. In that regard, Martha Stewart is a portrait in buoyancy, bouncing back brilliantly after getting sent off to prison.
Most people know Martha went to jail, but few actually know the real story behind her conviction. Yes it’s true, Martha served a five-month sentence in a federal penitentiary on charges stemming from an insider trading case. Investigators believed that she had avoided $45,000 in losses by unloading ImClone stock after receiving a tip from her broker that the company’s founder was dumping shares.
But the insider trading case was weak.
“She acted on her broker’s advice,” noted Michael Maiello in his article entitled “We Owe Martha Stewart an Apology”.
“The government would have had a devil of a time proving that she knew that advice was tainted by non-public information, or that a woman worth hundreds of millions of dollars would break the law over the price of a car too cheap for her to even want,” Maiello quipped.
But she lied to investigators, and that ticked off the government something awful. So they sent her to jail.
Ironically, around the same time she was exchanging her cooking apron for a prison jumpsuit, five of the world’s biggest banks were pleading guilty to criminal charges for trying to manipulate currency markets while ripping off their clients. It was a scandal involving billions of dollars, and yet no one ever faced jail time for those crimes.
But the situation highlighted both the aplomb and branding acumen Martha Stewart is famous for. Even as she held her last press conference before serving her sentence, she demonstrated her cunning mastery for controlling the narrative surrounding her brand.
As she handed reporters bags full of lemons, she joked that “you can’t make lemonade without lemons.”
Typically, prison is a death sentence for business people like Stewart — the kind of crisis that typically kills a brand, personal or corporate (in Martha’s case, both). But skip ahead to 2016, and Stewart would reestablish herself as a relevant brand by partnering with the most unlikely co-star, Snoop Dogg, for VH1’s variety cooking show, “Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party”.
The show is a hit with pot smokers. True to her brand, Martha doesn’t smoke, but Snoop does. Plenty. And often.
“He comes onto the set pretty high, and leaves pretty high,” Stewart told the Washington Post.
The show, which VH1 describes as “a half-baked evening of cocktails, cooking, conversation, and fun,” often focuses on the kind of snack food that would appeal to stoners with a heavy case of marijuana munchies (think: “pot brownies”).
Even though Martha Stewart might be best known for her baking and homemaking tips, her greatest skills and expertise are definitely found in business and the boardroom. Today, Stewart is just as immersed in her passion now as she was when she landed her first television show back in 1992. Behind her soft voice and easy-going demeanor, Stewart is a courageous risk-taker, a marketing genius, and a powerful businesswoman who knows how to sustain and grow a brand with a devoted following numbering in the millions.
Nevertheless, some of Stewart’s team initially thought that signing on for the VH1 show was “odd” to say the least. But the program helped extend her already-loyal fan base. “It brought me a credibility in a broad spectrum of our society that I hadn’t had before,” she told the New York Times.
As the epitome of etiquette, Martha hardly drinks and describes herself as “straight-laced”, so the pairing with Snoop Dogg might seem like a non sequitir. But hey, she went to prison, so she’s got street cred with Snoop’s crew.
So you can send Martha off to prison, but she’s resourceful enough to turn a rap sheet into a “plus” on her brand’s balance sheet.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Martha Stewart makes lemonade.
The Martha Rules: 10 Essentials for Achieving Success
1. Find & Follow the Big Idea
“Focus your attention and creativity on basic things — things that people need and want,” says Stewart. “Then look for ways to enlarge, improve, and enhance your big idea.”
Stewart brainstorms as many ideas as possible then starts digging deeper to identify the ones that are most viable. The best ideas are often those that are manageable in size, but also scalable, and that make the world a better place.
“Ideas can also come from one’s own personal frustrations”, Stewart says. For example, she created her own brand of paint after finding the natural looking colors were lacking when she went to paint her own house.
“When you are alert and tuned to the world around you, it is interesting to note how often your personal frustration can help you experience a Big Idea,” Martha says.
Since everyone who works in the financial industry is also a banking consumer, you should have no problem drumming up lists of pain points and frustrations.
2. Take Risks, Not Chances
Calculated risk is a “cornerstone of success,” Stewart says. But there’s a big difference between a well-calculated risk that can be viewed as an investment and a careless chance that causes everything to crumble.
Everyday risks can include the “make vs. buy” decision, hiring employees or looking to contractors, developing staff when knowing they may leave, and choosing between a long-term or short-term lease. But oftentimes, it takes a big risk for a businesses to step up to the next level.
While Stewart advocates calculated risk, she says you shouldn’t always jump the gun at what you think is an “opportunity of a lifetime” as new opportunities will always be on the horizon.
“You should never try something that makes you uncomfortable or that you are ill prepared to undertake just because you think you may never get another chance. That chance will come,” she says.
3. Make it Beautiful
Stewart stresses the value of good design, something often undervalued in today’s world where “cheap” and “disposable” products flood markets. But consumers value — even love — beautiful products and elegant solutions.
Listen intently, learn new things every day, be willing to innovate, and become an authority your customers will trust, Stewart recommends. “You will find great joy and satisfaction in making your customers’ lives easier, more meaningful, and more beautiful.”
But she has a metaphysical message that goes beyond physical beauty. Every day Martha puts “make life better” for others at the top of her to-do list.
“I am always asking myself how I can improve the lives of my customers, my colleagues, my shareholders, my family and my friends.”
4. Get a Telescope, a Microscope, and a Wide-Angle Lens
When you’ve got a big idea, create a plan that keeps you on track. You want to focus on the details without getting bogged down by them.
To do this, entrepreneurs need a metaphorical telescope, a wide-angle lens, and a microscope to view their organization and their strategy from several different angles. The telescope helps one envision the future of the project in the distance, and to set aspirations, gain clarity and identify key milestones. The wide-angle lens enables one to consider the broader views and factors, reducing silos in the process. And the microscope helps leaders view see and shed light on finer details when necessary.
“Remain flexible enough to zoom in or out of the vital aspects of your enterprise as your business grows,” Stewart says. “Successful executives have a keen focus and must remain true to their overall vision. They have the ability to change their focus from the big picture to the broad view. Their days are spent examining, thinking, rethinking.”
5. Build an A-team
“Search for advisors and partners who complement your skills and understand your ideals,” Stewart says.
While talented and optimistic employees put a better face on the company and drive greater customer satisfaction, they can also energize you and make a difference in your confidence level and success.
Organizations are only as good as their employees. “Seek out and hire employees who are brimming with talent, energy, integrity, optimism, and generosity.
Meet Martha at the Forum 2020
Attendees at The Financial Brand Forum can meet Martha Stewart in person, and get a signed copy of her book, “The Martha Rules: 10 Essentials for Achieving Success as You Start, Build, or Manage a Business”.
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6. Find the Opportunities in Challenges
Martha says she’s too polite to say “shit,” and instead calls it “stuff.” But
shit stuff happens, and when it does you must evaluate the situation, take the good, find opportunity in the bad, and just move on.
Remember: She’s the one that turned prison “lemons” into “lemonade” with her hit TV show on VH1.
You can always find opportunity in challenges and triumph in the ashes of defeat, she says. “There is no successful executive, anywhere, whose journey is without setbacks and crossroads.”
Executives in the financial industry must accept obstacles, speed bumps and detours as part of the journey, so Martha says you must always “be prepared for occasional dark nights and remain steadfast.”
Martha loves her culinary metaphors. “So the ‘pie’ isn’t perfect,” she says. “So cut it into wedges. Stay in control and never panic.”
7. Quality First
Stewart says quality must drive every decision, every day. Organizations must instill a corporate culture that embraces quality at every level. Create a standard of excellence, put it in to practice and make it a part of your big idea. And most importantly, never sacrifice quality when faced with challenges. “Whatever you want to do with your business, do it in the highest quality way and then analyze the financial consequences of that decision.”
When Stewart joined forces with Kmart in 1987, some people said they were concerned that she was going “down market.” But she listened to what customers wanted, analyzed the retailer’s product selection, and used her own product line to fill the quality gap.
“Quality does not have to be only for the wealthy,” Martha explains. “As a businessperson, I saw the opportunity to have an impact on a huge market, and that was irresistible.” The relationship worked so well for Kmart that the company didn’t even bat an eye after she went to prison.
8. Smart, Cost-Effective PR
To really spread the word about products and services, savvy business leaders need to consider all the methods of marketing promotion and to balance them both with creativity and common sense. One area that is often overlooked: Marketing.
“Use smart, cost-effective promotional techniques that will arrest the eye, tug at the heart, and convey what is unique and special about your business or service,” Stewart says.
Martha’s an advocate of “aggressively bold” publicity through media recognition. One of the best ways to do that is to promote yourself as an expert, something she has done for decades in publications and on TV. Constantly using your expertise and giving out that information reinforces and positions the brand. Make yourself available to news outlets as a resource.
“To be a successful, you must always search for ways to convey to potential customers all the good things you are doing,” she says. And that’s precisely what PR is all about.
9. Learn by Teaching Others
“If you learn something new every day, you can teach something new every day,” Stewart says. “By sharing your knowledge about your product or service with your customers, you create a deep connection that will help you learn how best to build and manage your business.”
By looking beyond the simple value of the initial transaction, you can learn to profit by giving away information and tapping customers as consultants. Even as her business grew, Stewart has always stayed close to customers through polls, direct communication, and ongoing relationships. Successful entrepreneurs constantly strive to understand their customers. “You also must appreciate them and care about their happiness,” she says.
10. Pursue Your Passion
“There is no single recipe for success,” Martha observes. “But there is one essential ingredient: passion.”
“Build your business success around something that you love — something that is inherently and endlessly interesting to you,” Stewart continues.
With Stewart, her interests are so intertwined with her business that it’s often hard to distinguish between the two. But building your business around something you love can keep you up when times get down, and help sustain high energy and creativity levels. “All the things I love is what my business is all about,” she says.
If you haven’t found your passion, experiment to find what it is then invest heavily in it and yourself. “Figure out what you need to know, what kind of experience and expertise you need to develop to do the things that you feel in your heart you will enjoy and that will sustain you both mentally and economically.”