Nobody Should Want to Be Like Ted
by Chad Rueffert

No, you can’t do what Ted did.  Nor should you want to. 

Who’s Ted?  Probably you’ve heard about United (Uni-TED) Airline’s introduction of its new low-cost carrier “Ted” that will be based out of Denver International Airport.  If you haven’t, then Fallon Worldwide, the agency who put together the part teaser, part guerilla marketing campaign to introduce it will be sorely disappointed.

To introduce the new carrier in the Denver area, United and Fallon used enigmatic ads and billboards with phrases like “Knock knock.  Who’s there?  Ted.” combined with guerilla tactics like starting “Ted” chants at Denver Nuggets games, having a mysterious guy named “Ted” buy lunch or dessert for entire restaurants and even spelling out “Ted” in huge letters made of sod in a field north of Denver.  There is no doubt that the airline and the agency managed to build some general name awareness for the new carrier, but I’d argue that it was all wasted effort.

First of all, the teaser aspect of the campaign was dead before most people had even been exposed to “Ted.”  The airline was formally introduced on November 18th, and won’t even begin flying until February of next year.  The campaign began on October 29th, but within days, reporters from the Rocky Mountain News had found that the advertised website was registered to a division of UAL Corp., United’s parent company.  By the time I started seeing the ads in local papers, I already knew who Ted was and the mystery was gone.

Secondly, guerilla-marketing tactics really lose some of their appeal when used by a corporate giant.  Guerilla marketing used to be marketing that reached consumers via opinion shapers who appeared to be promoting something of their own free will.  In other words, people got interested and purchased something because it seemed new and exclusive.  It was a product that wasn’t being advertised yet and people wanted to gain stature by being one of the first to try something new.  Guerilla marketing also used to be about using alternative, low-cost methods of generating public awareness without resorting to traditional media outlets.  Now, it’s about paid actors, advertising agencies and big budgets.  It just seems so completely contrived.  Somehow it’s terribly anti-climatic to create so much buzz about something so mundane as a low-cost air carrier that’s really just a division of a larger airline struggling to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  Who’s Ted?  The answer from most people when they learned was “Who cares?”

Business owners often flirt with the idea of teaser campaigns or guerilla marketing tactics.  But those that actually try are usually the ones who are so in love with their own product that they are blind to consumer indifference.  I believe that is the case with United.  In this case the hype is bigger than the reality.

In an interview in the Chicago Tribune, David Wisnom, manager of San Francisco-based branding company FutureBrand, said “For a company that needs to re-establish credibility and confidence, to do something wacky and edgy is a little risky.  You have to be relevant first and then you can be different.” 

There are just very few products or companies for whom teaser campaigns will work.  The reality is if you’re going to tease somebody, pique their interest, and be generally mysterious, you’d better back it up with something that justifies the effort.  Otherwise consumers will turn their back on you when they find that they weren’t just teased, they were tricked.  When your advertising is more interesting than your product, consumers infer a sense of desperation that does not inspire confidence.  It’s much like an ignored child’s frantic and comical efforts to gain attention.  Too often the response is an off hand “That’s nice, dear.”

Guerilla marketing, on the other hand, does have a variety of applications.  The best use of guerilla tactics on a local level is for one-time events.  Guerilla marketing is just not the right tactic for long-term brand building or sales generation – primarily because one of the goals for a guerilla campaign is to generate media publicity and at best that’s a one-time deal.  But if you’re promoting a unique sale or theatrical event or concert, being creative and unique in your approach can often generate enough interest and publicity to make that one event a success.  Repeat success, however, will depend on the mundane things like how much the people actually liked your product or event compared to how much they had to pay for it.  Guerilla marketing cannot take the place of sound business and marketing strategies.

The one thing United has going for it is deep, deep, bankrupt pockets.  Their teaser campaign is not the end of their marketing.  If it turns out that they actually can fly you from Denver to Las Vegas cheaper than the competition and do it on time and at a profit, they’ll probably be a success.  In the long run, it really doesn’t matter if “Ted” buys my dessert.  If the fare is less, I’ll be waving goodbye to Ted from my window seat on America West.