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Did Prison Ruin Martha Stewart?

More recently, Stewart's empire has continued to produce mixed results. In 2010, her "Martha Stewart Show" moved from network to cable on The Hallmark Channel in what was then described as a multi-year strategic partnership. However, The Hallmark Channel recently announced that the show would be cancelled at the end of its first broadcast season due to disappointing ratings. Home Depot (HD) recently announced that it will no longer sell her branded paints, though do-it-yourselfers will still be able to mix her color palette into Glidden bases. Last December, J.C. Penney (JCP) announced plans to purchase 16.6% of Stewart's company, but the Martha Stewart mini-stores in J.C. Penney locations aren't expected to open until 2013, leaving plenty of time for the new relationship to sour.

So, why does Martha Stewart's empire apparently continue to struggle? There may be several reasons. First, although the sluggish economy has caused many homeowners to renovate the houses they have instead of trading up to more lavish residences, consumers may be reluctant to spend money on decorative fripperies even if they can afford to do so. (When the next-door neighbors are out of work and on the edge of ruin, color-coordinated tableware and faux finished walls may seem a trifle de trop.)

Second, Stewart is no longer the only game in town. Ever the generalist, Stewart sometimes seemed positively fumble-fingered compared to expert guests on her show even in her heyday. Celebrity decorators, chefs, gardeners and travel experts now crowd the lifestyle industry Stewart essentially invented. Even The Hallmark Channel announced its intent to expand its lifestyle lineup when it cancelled her show. Perhaps Stewart fares less well with capable competitors nipping at her heels.

Sadly, though, it seems most likely that her company's difficulties are attributable to Stewart herself. Seven years after her release, Martha Stewart remains the domestic goddess who fell from grace. Once her serene, gracious public image had been tarnished by her insider-trading conviction, tell-all books and articles describing Stewart as an ill-mannered harridan sprouted like the exotic mushrooms she uses in her ragout. It may well be that her products seem less elegant to consumers now that Stewart herself has been exposed as something less than aristocratic. Just the fact that Stewart's show drew such poor ratings for The Hallmark Channel may suggest that, even if consumers continue to like her company's merchandise, they don't necessarily like her.

Fashions come and go quickly, and it's entirely possible that Martha Stewart, now 70, is simply starting to go out of style. Still, other would-be media moguls who hope to become the face of their own successful companies would be wise to learn from her story. Consumers buy from people they admire and trust, and convicts rarely qualify.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.
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