Almost everyone who has studied the predicament confronting the managers of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. agrees that Martha Stewart should leave for her company to have its best chance to survive.

But the cure could kill the patient, and it's likely Stewart will resist any effort to separate her from an institution so dependent on her taste and style.

If ever there were a business crisis that illustrates the vital link between personality and corporate success and also shows the danger of basing a company on the image and vision of a person, this is it.

It's not - as Martha would say - a good thing.

"If you go to jail and you're the embodiment of the brand, I think that ends the strength of the brand," said Lynn M. Parker, a principal and founding member of Parker LePla, an integrated branding consultancy in Seattle. "Martha Stewart is so intertwined with her brand that you can't extract the Martha Stewartness and have anything left over that anyone can relate to."

The stock sale that netted Stewart less than $50,000 in savings, plus four felony convictions, could end up sending her to prison for 20 years - though she is expected to get no more than 36 months.

Promising on Friday to appeal, she wrote on her Web site www.marthatalks.com:

"I believe in the fairness of the judicial system and remain confident that I will ultimately prevail."

For Stewart, there's an urgent imperative to fulfill that prediction. She lost $95 million in stock value on Friday alone. If the company fails, she'll lose much more.

But analysts say the damage to her credibility, as a purveyor of lifestyle advice - of perfection, graciously shared with the masses - may be irreversible.

"Her strength is her personality cult where people have bought into this Martha Stewart image," said Lewis Small, a professor of marketing at York College in Pennsylvania. "Guilty on four counts definitely messes that up."

Falling stock

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia stock dropped more than 20 percent Friday, the $10.86-a-share price a far cry from the heady first day on the market in 1999 when shares closed at $35.56.

Based in New York, the company is a publisher of how-to magazines, a producer of how-to television, a multimillion-dollar merchandiser and a direct seller of products such as deluxe organizing cabinets and Slovakian Easter eggs.

A day before she was convicted, Stewart was nominated for a "service show host" Daytime Emmy for the Martha Stewart Living show - an award she has won four times before.

From a studio in Westport, Conn., she talks people through flower arrangements, table settings and caramelizing.

But almost immediately after Friday's verdict, WCBS in New York reportedly announced that it would stop airing the show beginning tomorrow, and marketing experts questioned how she could continue taping episodes.

The company Martha made is preparing for the possibility of a Stewart-less future. It posted its first annual loss Thursday, pulled down by declines in advertising and circulation at Martha Stewart Living magazine.

"We assure you that we have done the appropriate contingency planning," Chief Executive Sharon L. Patrick told investors in a conference call Thursday. "We are well-positioned to weather the storm."