Martha Stewart communities

A recent article in The New York Times announced the joint venture between KB Home and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia to create a Martha-inspired community. This means that now the branded community of millions who already cook Martha Stewart meals, plant Martha Stewart gardens, go to Martha Stewart parties and sleep between Martha Stewart sheets can enjoy the ultimate Martha experience in a civic community rendered by Martha.

The construction of a physical community is the ultimate signature of a powerful brand. Years ago, a shoe manufacturer touted Planet Reebok, but no one really believed the hyperbole.

Today, we can imagine not only a Martha Stewart living community (the first will be in Cary, North Carolina, homes priced from $200 to $400 thousand), but such is the power of the brands that nurture us that it wouldn’t be too hard to fathom what a Starbucks community might feel like. Or a Nike community (envision lots of running paths). Or an Apple community (the ultimate “iLife”). But try to imagine a Tide, Sprint, or Valvoline community. Not pretty.

The resonance of brands that mean something to us tells just how much they have imbedded themselves in the fabric of our existence. Their meaning has meaning. It extends beyond the product benefit, which begins to seem simplistic, and infers itself into who we are and what we can become.

What exactly does it mean when someone moves into a Martha Stewart-designed home? Although the publicity release suggests they are styled after Martha’s own homes in New York and Maine, the structures in Cary range from 1,500 square feet to 4,100 square feet. If that’s true, this is a Muchkin-sized reconstruction of Martha’s million-dollar estates. Yet, even in miniature, it’s the perfect embrace of Martha-ness.

Popular painter Thomas Kinkade took his romanticized visions and turned them into reality not long ago at The Village at Hiddenbrooke, a Kinkade-inspired community outside of San Francisco. If you don’t know, Kinkade sells his romantic/reality images at his Thomas Kinkade galleries, located in shopping malls across the country. Known as the “Painter of Light”, Kinkade’s images of snow-blanketed homes glow with internal heat that seeps with hope and glory for the common man. Kinkade either dropped out or was released from Art Center in Pasadena, when he refused the rigors of modern abstract art and decided to paint for common folk instead of art critics.

Thousands of people now own Kinkade prints, which run into the thousands of dollars. Kinkade’s success even drew the attention of Wall Street when he became the first artist in history to be placed on the Exchange.

Back in Hiddenbrooke, however, at least according to one visitor, the translation from Kinkade’s super-idealized fantasy paintings is less than spectacular. Whereas the paintings project a charming idealized reality, the streets of Hiddenbrooke are, well, too real.

Thomas Kinkade and Martha Stewart are brands that are imbedded with primal code. They have origin stories, rituals, icons, words and their share of people who don’t believe in what they have to offer. Perhaps the problem at Hiddenbrooke is that Kinkade does not understand the power of the icons he has created; perhaps faced with construction realities, he didn’t want to create another Disneyland. Perhaps we are so accustomed to the gingerbread lifestyle already proffered by prefab communities, that they already approximate the sanitized ideal Kinkade puts on canvas.

Like Martha Stewart, Kinkade offers a rarified alternative to the emotional soot of modern life. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is in matching expectations with reality. We cannot expect even the most perfect among us to be able to stretch that ideal into every facet of our lives. As someone once said, all art is a lie. The painting hanging on the wall is a reflection of the home it hangs within, not the home itself.

Shed of her ankle bracelet, Martha Stewart is back among us. She has a book deal, a television deal, and now a real estate deal. As always, Martha Stewart helps us reach for an ideal that is often beyond our grasp. With any luck, perhaps some of us will come closer to it in Cary, North Carolina.