The Wisdom of “Hogan’s Heroes”

“In wartime, you have to be flexible.” I never imagined I’d be quoting Sgt. Schultz of TV’s Hogan’s Heroes in an Editor’s Page. Then again, I never imagined that opening the mail would be an occupational hazard. Or that at a party a friend who worked at the World Trade Center would quietly be detailing what it was like to look outside his office window and see the contents of a passenger jet rain down.

This is wartime, but it’s a war that’s vaguer and more elusive than others we’ve experienced, and so there are no benchmarks or templates or precedents to consider. Which is why flexibility is especially important, and not just among the military. During his keynote speech at the recent Direct Marketing Association Annual Conference in Chicago, former president George Bush noted that our enemies are not only the terrorists but also “instability and unpredictability. They are the natural enemies of sound government and good business.”

Luckily, marketers have more flexible tools now than ever before. Anthrax has consumers spooked about receiving packages through the mail? E-mail allows you to notify them in advance that their package is on the way. Worried that corporate mailrooms may be delaying distribution of your latest catalog? Again, you can e-mail your customers and direct them to your Website. Concerned that prospects will just dump your catalog in the mail because they hadn’t requested it? You could send them a postcard instead, once more directing them to the Website.

Some pundits — and I use the word loosely — predict that holiday shoppers will turn to catalogs and the Internet for fear of terrorist activity in shopping malls. Then again, other so-called experts expect catalog and Web shopping to decrease, because of people’s fears about the mail and also due to a desire to connect with others in these parlous times. But no one knows, just as no one knew how different Sept. 12 would be from Sept. 10.

As I write this, if I were a cataloger I’d consider promoting the fact that customers who order holiday gifts for out-of-town loved ones from my company could have the items shipped directly to the recipients, so that the gift-givers need not head to the post office themselves. Not only does it play up the ever-popular convenience factor, but it may win over consumers who on some level fear contracting anthrax merely by stepping foot in a postal facility. I’d also remind customers of the airlines’ stringent carry-on rules, which could make it difficult to take gifts along on a holiday trip back home — a problem that ordering by catalog could circumvent.

But as you read this, situations are bound to have changed. Maybe anthrax will have gone the way of shark attacks and Gary Condit, relegated to yesterday’s news. New challenges may have emerged that require new marketing solutions — and of course, greater flexibility.

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