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Why Joanna Gaines is the New Queen of Home

It’s not quite like the drama over picking a new pope or the spirituality of finding out who the next Dalai Llama will be, but for the home furnishings industry, it’s been nearly as anticipated: who was going to be the next Martha Stewart?

Now we know.

Ever since Miss Martha peaked during the early 2000s and then began a slow descent with reduced influence on both the media and merchandising fronts – not to mention a prison stint that really was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – worthy successors have come and gone with no clear winner.
Some contend that in an age of splintered media, no one figurehead can ever command the position Stewart did in her heyday. And Martha and her handlers – now a branding company called Sequential – will tell you, by the way, she’s just fine and as influential as ever.

But all of that said, over the past 24 months a clear winner in the next-Martha sweepstakes has emerged. And she comes not from the design and media capitals of the country like New York or Los Angeles, but from a relatively obscure town in the middle of Texas. Yet make no mistake about it: with a savvy combination of TV, print and commercial products, Joanna Gaines is the New Martha.

You see, the media mixed with merchandising strategy is what really defined the brilliance of Stewart…and now Gaines following the same playbook. There had always been celebrity designers and there had also been influential and authoritative media, both print and electronic. But Stewart was the one who parlayed them into a juggernaut of the home furnishings world. At its peak, the Martha Stewart program did nearly a $1 billion a year in retail sales at Kmart. Her television programs were all over broadcast and creeping onto the emerging social media outlets. Her books were best sellers. Her magazine was a newsstand star.

For Martha, it was confluence of media and merchandising that made her business model a game changer. Her TV shows and magazine drove business to her products, while retail sales linked back to the media properties as consumers wanted to know what to do with all of these things they just bought. It was a brilliant equation and one nobody had ever done before.

The Big Gaines

And now Joanna Gaines is doing exactly the same thing…and then some:

  • Like Martha, Joanna Gaines – and let’s not forget husband Chip who is integral to both the business and entertaining factor of the brand – began with a business, in this case fixing up and flipping homes. When TV came calling, it became Fixer Upper, which went on to five seasons and close to 80 episodes. The series was such a big hit that when it ended last year, the Gaines started talks with the Discovery Network – owner of HGTV where it aired – for their own entire Magnolia network. Details aren’t officially set yet, but it looks like Joanna and Chip (and their assorted kiddoes) will be back on the air before not too long. And even Martha never had her own network.
  • From television, the next step was print. In 2016 Magnolia Home magazine debuted, a quarterly done with Meredith. It has been an immediate hit, going over the one million print run mark last year. And at $7.99 a pop, it is no giveaway.
  • Also, in print have come the Joanna Gaines books, at least four by recent count, not including one from Chip, cleverly titled Capital Gaines. Her latest is a children’s book, a logical extension given the five Gaines kids.

Selling the Goods

What makes the Martha comparison really work is the merchandise. It began with the Gaines’ own store, Magnolia Home in their Waco hometown, extended out with a direct-to-consumer website. On a good Saturday afternoon (the store is closed on Sunday, the Gaines being observant to their Christian beliefs) the store pulls in as many as 30,000 people.

But then they began licensing. First were rugs and decorative pillows, licensed out to specialist in the field, Loloi. That was followed by furniture, paint and a variety of other decorative accessories. The real big hit has been a program with Target under the Hearth & Home with Magnolia as a sub-brand. Focused on home décor, it recently expanded into the soft home world of bedding. The program is believed to be a big hit as part of Target’s re-emerging brand line-up.

Joanna has taken the brand extensions even further afield, with a bakery, a new coffee shop coming later this year, and even a bed and breakfast, all in Waco. Not even Martha went that far.

These days, even if Fixer Upper is not airing new episodes, Joanna and Chip are incredibly visible. Mega-stars Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez, newly engaged, have hired her to help them with their new Malibu house. And even if you’re not seeing them, you’re seeing Joanna’s impact on home furnishings design. Her signature Farmhouse Modern aesthetic is everywhere these days: Shiplap woodwork, farm house sinks, sliding barn doors, sophisticated color schemes and giant wall clocks that may or may not actually work.

So, while Martha certainly had her design favorites, the singularity of Magnolia is unprecedented in a broad-based design trend. It’s why there’s no question that Joanna Gaines is the new Martha Stewart.

Warren Shoulberg drove to Waco, Texas especially to see the Magnolia Home store. Unfortunately, it was on a Sunday.

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