Readers offer branding advice: Challenge assumptions, reinvent

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I got an e-mail the other day from Peter Flatow, a self-described "marketing guy" who's been an Ad Age reader for 35 years. He was responding to my column on the Ad Agers, a forum for retired or about-to-be retired advertising people who want to use their talents for worthwhile activities, both inside and outside the ad business.

Mr. Flatow thinks "there are many of us who can and do make real contributions, but there is so much more we could and I believe would like to do."

And what better place to start than the post-Katrina Gulf Coast? "Will those in charge (whomever that might be) just rebuild or will they choose to reinvent the area?" he asks.

Mr. Flatow's expertise is in new products and business reinvention (see Reinventing Your Business at coknowledge.com), and he says "how often have companies started with the product, tried to find need and then failed? It is as if people didn't learn. What might happen if instead of saying, `Here is New Orleans, rebuild it,' someone asked, `What is the need for New Orleans' and then go from there?" So Mr. Flatow's suggestion is for us to open the Ad Agers site and make "Let's Reinvent New Orleans" the inaugural project.

What's sad but true is that nobody ever thinks about reinventing something-whether a product or city-until dire circumstances force the decision. And sometimes even that won't do it.

Take Delta Air Lines (please!). Delta has filed for bankruptcy in an effort to get rid of its burdensome cost structure, but the airline hopes to emerge a leaner and meaner version of the same worldwide system-a version that is guaranteed to continue its losing ways.

Wouldn't it be better to reinvent an airline with a simple and low-price airfare structure that customers actually enjoyed flying?

What, you say? They've already invented such an airline? Impossible, I say. Why would any sane person or company want to keep an obsolete economic model when they've already got an airline that replicates the two most successful airlines in the country?

The airline Delta invented is called Song, and as Greg Lindsay reported in his AdAge.com series on his three-week journey through the airports of the nation, "there is a certain sense of adventure surrounding Song, whose innovative marketing strategies could all be for naught if it is ultimately strangled by the tightening financial troubles of Delta."

A flight attendant on Song told Greg that the best thing Delta brass did was to totally separate the Song operation from the mother ship. Because if they had gone through Delta's regular marketing department "all they would have heard was `don't do that.' "

Of course it's difficult for a multibillion-dollar company to pull the plug on its main brand, even if it is losing hundreds of millions, and put all their money on a low-priced and low-cost upstart.

And it will probably be just as difficult to reinvent New Orleans on higher, drier land so its citizens aren't constantly worried about levees giving way. People are already talking about rebuilding the levees to surpass those in Holland in strength and complexity, but wouldn't it make more sense to move to an area where they wouldn't have to worry about levees at all?

I received another e-mail from Dr. Dan Olson, a "slave pathologist" at a hospital in Omaha, Neb. He used to subscribe but gave it up because of the pressures on his time, but he's still a "wannabe" creative, and he gave me, free of charge, his idea for the rebirth of the Big Easy: ReNew Orleans.

As the cardboard man in the Guinness beer TV spot says, "Brilliant."

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