Stone: This is not — repeat, not — an election column
A Stone’s Throw
Announcement from the management: Please be aware that the following column has nothing whatsoever to do with the upcoming election.
This close to Election Day, what’s the point? Most minds have slammed shut; most votes already have been cast.
For better or worse, those horses have left the barn — or, more to the point, those weasels have left the burrow.
So I’m going to talk about my vacation — and about “brand betrayal.” (Never heard that term before? Not surprising. I just made it up.)
I’ll start by telling you that we spent a couple of weeks in French Polynesia: Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea and other islands with a surfeit of vowels and apostrophes in their names. Like Taha’a.
I’m not telling you this to make you jealous. (Well, maybe a little.) The point is that I was — shazam! — transformed into a tourist.
And, as a tourist, I was smacked hard by that “brand betrayal.”
The first smack came on our flight from Los Angeles to Tahiti.
There aren’t a lot of choices when it comes to flying to Tahiti, but we were pleased to find that one of the choices was Air France.
How great was that? European sophistication and, of course, great food!
Yeah, as the fella says, right.
Our Air France flight was just flat nasty.
The flight attendant was unpleasant, barely short of outright hostile — but, OK, the French have a reputation for that. So maybe a little hostility was to be expected. Part of the brand, as it were.
What we didn’t expect was the food. Vile. Nearly inedible. We left most of our meals untouched.
My wife filled out a comment card saying she would hesitate to feed that meal to our dog. (Our dog, I should mention, would not have hesitated to eat it — but he’s a dog.)
My point is: When you think of France, one of the things you immediately think of is great food. That’s their brand.
And yet, there we were on the French national airline, flying to French Polynesia, and the food was wretched.
I may fly Air France again someday, but it will never be my first choice.
They betrayed the brand.
Our second encounter with brand betrayal came almost immediately after we got to Tahiti.
After clearing customs, tired and (thanks, Air France) hungry, we got a taxi to our hotel in Papeete, the island’s capital (and only large) city.
And we were immediately stuck in a traffic jam. An ugly traffic jam.
That trip, which should have taken less than half an hour, took well over an hour — stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper, with a side order of exhaust fumes.
Our driver was a cheerful Tahitian woman who assured us, “It’s always like this in the morning.”
There we were, spending a lot of time and money to get to what is supposed to be a close approximation of paradise on earth, and we were stuck in a traffic jam.
(Just for the record, after we got out of Papeete, our trip turned specifically magnificent. Paradise on earth is indeed a reasonable description of those islands.)
All of which brings us to Aspen.
I admit I don’t like to think about Aspen’s “brand.” That seems irredeemably cynical. I prefer to think of Aspen as a “community,” not a “brand.”
But still, if this community wants to prosper in anything except selling real estate, I suppose we need to consider our brand.
Which raises a tricky question: What exactly is Aspen’s brand? If we’re not going to betray it, we ought to know what it is.
If the South Pacific islands are “paradise on earth” and France is “a little arrogant with great food,” what are we?
I will always start with “a great ski town” — even though I wasn’t really a skier until after I settled here.
And I settled here because as soon as I stumbled into Aspen — more or less at random — I looked around and realized this was “the best place I could ever dream of living.” And that might sound like a great brand, but it’s a bit unwieldy, and we already have a problem with too many people wanting to live here. We’re looking for visitors, not residents.
So now, honestly, I’m stumped.
Aspen is clearly more than just another ski town.
This is a real town with real history and real character. With the music and art — and remember: All of that was part of Aspen from the very start of the skiing rather than something shoveled on as a good marketing move a few decades after the skiing began.
Aspen’s a low-rise town in a high mountain valley, with beautiful old homes and a historic downtown, anchored by two iconic brick buildings that rise above all the others, standing tall and broad-shouldered at the heart of the city.
Sounds good, but still, what’s the brand?
A mixture of sweat and glitter? Athletes and art galleries? Skiers and musicians and genius physicists?
Wait a minute.
That’s starting to sound like Walter Paepcke’s Aspen Idea: a place to nurture the body, mind and spirit.
Walter, you crafty devil, maybe you still get the last word.
Maybe that’s our brand.
And, how strange, even as I typed that last sentence — really — an email hit my inbox, topped with this 1901 quote from John Muir: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home.”
Muir and Paepcke. There’s a team.
And somewhere in there is a “brand” that’s just about right.
What we are. What we want to be. What we ought to be.
But then comes the hard part: not betraying that brand with traffic jams, polluted air, the ear-shattering roar of construction, streets clogged with heavy equipment. The endless, ceaseless attempt to make a buck off the brand that is betraying the brand.
We can do better. Can’t we?
Closing note from management: Really, this column has nothing whatsoever to do with the upcoming election.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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