Turning Your Name into a Brand Name
Tips from yes Martha Stewart and others who are now identified with their products
Want to become a household name? Emblazon your signature on a toaster, or sign a spatula. That's what architect Michael Graves is doing. Discount
department store Target recruited the Princeton (N.J.)-based architect to
create a line of housewares that debuted in January. The message: Buy a
Graves-brand appliance and exude his design savvy.
Everywhere you turn these days, someone is angling to become a brand
-- that elusive hybrid of style guru and product-pusher. You know -- like
Martha Stewart. "Branding is very much an in thing to do right now,"
says Michael Carberry, partner and general manager with Earle Palmer Brown in Washington
D.C. "Everybody's saying if you have a brand, you can overcome a lot
of other difficulties. You can be Somebody."
Can anybody can be Somebody? Carberry and other branding experts say
yes. The waters are more likely to part for someone like Graves, an architect who has done some controversial buildings, or a sports or TV star. Still, a successful entrepreneur with
an excellent reputation and a certain flair has the building blocks to
create a brand -- at least locally. The trouble is, most small-business
people are so focused on pulling in today's sale that they don't develop
what they have. And it's certainly not a strategy for the reticent.
What does it take for ordinary mortals to become a name? First, products
that consistently live up to the promise that you make for them. Only then can you claim that those products will make you feel
or look a certain way or help you accomplish something by buying them. "I think
that it's a huge mistake and a huge fallacy to try to become a brand first,
although now with brand awareness, people do," contends Stewart, a model who became stockbroker who became a caterer who turned into a pundit of domestic skills -- from stencilling to etiquette to decorating objects
as mundane as a mouse pad. Her $200 million empire now includes a magazine,
Web site, daily TV show, syndicated newspaper column, Sherwin-Williams
paint line, and Kmart product lines. "I started out writing books," she
says. "Once you write a book, you're an expert. People trust you. And
when they can trust you, that's when the brand-building can start."
Stewart is almost a parody of successful life-as-a-brand now. She
speaks to a reporter on one car phone while another rings in the background,
and while puffing away on her exercise bike between engagements. But when
she burst onto the scene in 1982 with Entertaining, a glossy tome
full of color pictures of food and tableware, she was a caterer. The book's
sudden success got her on the Junior League speaking circuit. Its members,
mainly wealthy women, lined up to hear her advice on party-giving. Stewart
seized the opportunity. "I wanted to be known as an authority," she says.
With more books and speaking engagements, Kmart asked her to become
a spokeswoman, giving her national exposure. That hurt her with the Junior
League types though, and for a while it looked like she had undermined her
young brand. "We were penalized. A lot was cancelled," Stewart admits.
But she stuck with Kmart and eventually parlayed her growing popularity
into a magazine, Martha Stewart Living, which Time Inc. first published
in 1991. Stewart, eager to leverage her name beyond publishing, eventually
bought Time out. She revamped Kmart's sheet and towel designs, insisting
on total control of the look -- a hallmark of her strategy. "Now, we manage
70% of the bed and bath department," she points out. And she expanded into Kmart's garden
wares in early 1999. For her Sherwin-Williams paint line, she and her staff
identified 550 colors -- the hues of leaves or cat's hair, for example -- which the company had to make or match.
Stewart's obsession with detail has made her a satirist's delight --
and the envy of plenty of wannabes. "Brands start to fail when you accept
work that's not up the brand creator's standard," she says. That dictum
works regardless of the business you're in, Stewart insists. "If you make
the best pizza around, everybody's going to know it in three years. The
line's going to be out the door. And then you open more pizzerias. And
then you have a brand."
This attitude is crucial for small-business brand-building, says Vishwah
Marwah, head of Tattoo, a San Francisco-based firm that specializes in
brand creation. Once you have a product, define what your name will
stand for, as narrowly as possible, and make sure you can keep the quality
up. What does Stewart's brand stand for? "You can have a better life. If
you're at all inclined, you could find time to do something that will give
you self-assurance," she says.
Then find out what your market needs. Stewart polls her customers through
her "Ask Martha" newspaper column and weekly online chats. "We have a backlog
of 50,000 Ask Martha questions. We know exactly what they need and what
they want," she says. Lacking Stewart's resources, you can conduct your
own customer surveys, possibly in conjunction with a promotion.
Becoming known is harder. Marketing experts favor third-party endorsements,
such as articles touting your expertise. Anything that cements your image
in the mind of customers can be fair game, though. That's Bob Kaufman's
approach. This discount-furniture seller from Connecticut
is the antithesis of the fastidious Stewart in manner. But he hammers home his point -- that value is his stock-in-trade -- literally thousands of times a week on local TV stations across the state. His goofy on-air style has made him into a regional small-business brand.
His 15 Bob's Discount Furniture stores (up from one in 1991) now
make 2,000 deliveries a week. He makes so many commercials that he built his
"The day I got on TV and did my first ad, I started building my brand,"
says Kaufman, an elfin-looking fellow in jeans and a sportshirt. Kaufman's
father, an adman for 50 years, didn't approve. "He said, 'Son, I love you
dearly, but your voice stinks and you look like crap,'" recalls Kaufman, who saw himself as another Frank Purdue, the folksy chicken magnate
who pitched his poultry on national TV. "I really felt that with my
name on the door, who better to present the story than me? I really believe
in what I'm doing."
Kaufman is not selling refinement. In his ads, he talks to couches --
and they talk back. He dresses up as a sorcerer's apprentice and guides
furniture with his wand. He scolds competitors for charging so much more
than he does. Kaufman is Everyman -- a guy who goes to work in jeans, just
like his customers. He admits that his brand is changing a little, though
he remains committed to low prices and an eccentric style. He's now selling
more leather furniture, and he has softened his edge a bit to appeal to a more
refined customer: "I don't screech as much. We call it internally 'Bob
on Prozac.' We know we have to evolve. We know that to sell a $5,000 leather
set, you're not gonna do that with an in-your-face kind of thing."
Ironically, the upscale crowd from the southern part of Connecticut, which
hates his blue-collar image, now shops at Bob's Discount Furniture quite
a bit. It makes them nervous, though. Some ask him to deliver in an unmarked
truck. That he won't do: "I've been successful at building the brand so
far," he says. "I'm never getting out of my jeans." His loyal customers
will also be glad to learn -- there are no plans for a Bob Kaufman Living
By Carol Dannhauser in Fairfield, Conn.