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5.12.99  
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 own studio.

"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 Magazine.

By Carol Dannhauser in Fairfield, Conn.

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