The Biggest Business Comebacks

The Biggest Business Comebacks

by Monica Sanders, December 2009

Some people can be down and out, others are down but never out. Martha Stewart, Steve Madden, and Sean Combs have all been about as low as a businessperson can be. That low would be either going to prison or coming close to it. Beyond being masters of marketing and promotions, they've proven to be masters (and mistress) of the comeback.

Martha Stewart found out that having the inside track isn't always a good thing. The queen of everything domestic served a five-month prison sentence for insider trading. Her multi-media conglomerate was left without its CEO and main marketing hook, Martha. As a result, share prices that had once been above $49 tumbled to slightly more than $5. Her television show was cancelled and advertisers abandoned her magazine.

Instead of wilting away in shame, Martha maintained a high profile from prison. She promoted her domestic talents from behind bars, explaining how she learned to use a microwave. And she used her celebrity to draw attention to the treatment of women in prison. The result? Her adoring public never stopped adoring her. As soon as she left "Camp Cupcake," Martha went to work coming up with ideas to get her company back on track. Stock prices have rebounded to above $30. She's resumed taping her weekly show and shot new covers for her magazine. Perhaps her biggest comeback win is gaining even more exposure. This fall she gets her own version of "The Apprentice" and a talk show of her own. It just goes to show, not even 18-months of being attached to an electronic monitoring device can keep a good woman down.

Steve Madden gets second place honors for best comeback. He too, went to prison for SEC related crimes - stock manipulation to be exact. Madden spent two and a half years in a Florida facility, relinquished his position as an officer of the company he founded and pretty much kept his hands out of the financial pot. While Steven Madden, the company, stayed in the black by expanding into new markets, Steve Madden, the man, did all of his designing from a cell block.

As Madden's sentence wound down, the company actually incorporated his imprisonment and release into an ad campaign! Billboards, internet and magazine ads touted the designer's return to the company and expressed joy at having fresh designs from Madden. And it worked. Women never thought twice about buying his chunky heeled footwear. In a recently released earnings report, the company touted its stock price's rise: up 29% from the year before (a year without Steve). The brand is expanding to include a line of handbags.

Sean Combs, or P.Diddy, never went to prison but has known his fair share of legal problems. He came close to serving time after being brought up on gun charges in 1999. His other appearances in the legal system, since then, have mostly related to business. While he was fighting the gun charges, his record label lost most of its artists. Jennifer Lopez, his girlfriend at the time, dumped him. No doubt about it, Diddy was having some down days. But a new day was dawning.

After being cleared of the gun charges, he recreated his brand. He injected new talent into Bad Boy Records, but his focus remained was on his main brand, his fashionable self. He worked to make Sean John clothing more than just another hip-hop clothing line - Combs wanted it to become a high fashion men's line. Sean Jean quickly became popular with other entertainers and working professionals, so popular in fact, Combs is channeling another comeback artist, Martha Stewart, and launching a line of home products. High end toiletries, towels and d├ęcor are now available at the Sean Jean New York flagship store. Next, Combs could venture into women's clothing and fragrances.

Though they are from a range of backgrounds, these people have a lot in common. They all have strong business acumen, and the ability to create self-sustaining brands. Even in the absence of their creators, all of their brands continued to be marketable on their own merits. The power structure of the companies was diverse enough that associates could attend to business when company leaders were temporarily indisposed. However, the main talent they all share is that of image control. Each of them has been able to manipulate their public image in such a way that they remained favorites of customers at the lowest points in their respective careers.