The Little Shop that Could

How one New Orleans agency came back after Katrina


There were businesses that left New Orleans for good after Hurricane Katrina devastated The Big Easy in 2005 - you can't fault them for wanting to make a fresh start elsewhere. But Trumpet, a branding agency and venture marketing firm launched by Pat McGuinness and Robbie Vitrano in 1997, chose to remain in New Orleans. "We were the first agency to be back in operation here after Katrina," McGuinness says, "and we'll probably be the last to leave."

Trumpet didn't just stay put. The company and its founders were inspired to plant deeper roots in the city. Nearly three years ago, Trumpet made the ultimate commitment when it invested in New Orleans real estate, buying the Icehouse, a 1920s era building located in Faubourg St. John, a historic residential neighborhood that was hit hard by Katrina.

The 12,000-square-foot Icehouse, which was indeed an icehouse in its early years, then a coffin factory, then home to a metal-sculpting doctor, now serves as Trumpet's headquarters.

The purchase was a practical one in that it gave the company a place to call its own, with more space in which to operate and grow. More importantly, buying the property allowed Trumpet to become part of the fabric of a community. In addition to housing Trumpet and other for-profit entities, the building is home to nonprofits like The Urban Conservancy's Stay Local! and Broad Community Connections; the Icehouse regularly hosts events like the Mayoral Speakeasy and The Urban Conservancy's annual fundraiser.

Going Local

Trumpet didn't just buy real estate post-Katrina. The investment in the Icehouse was more significantly preceded by a shift in how Trumpet did business. It started in the immediate aftermath of Katrina when Trumpet resigned its biggest client, Real Mex Restaurants, the world's largest casual dining Mexican restaurant group. "That was a time when people were struggling to keep businesses open and people were looking at us saying, 'You did what?'" McGuinness says.

Trumpet wasn't forced to give up the lucrative account. The company had actually survived Katrina relatively unscathed - its then-headquarters, located in a building owned by chef Emeril Lagasse, didn't suffer any substantial damage and all but two of Trumpet's employees returned to work after Katrina.

But McGuinness and Vitrano just didn't have it in them to promote taco specials in the wake of a natural disaster that laid waste to the city they were both born and raised in. "It was a near-death experience for our city; something that caused us to look inside and identify what was important and what we wanted to do moving forward," McGuinness reflects.

Determined to play a role in the rebuilding and reinvention of New Orleans, McGuinness and Vitrano cut back on clients beyond New Orleans - national brands made up 75 percent to 80 percent of their business pre-Katrina - to focus on those in their own backyard. In just a few years, they've seen local clientele - a mix of private and public sector clients - swell to at least 60 percent of their business. Trumpet has also been behind major projects that have been key in the revitalization of New Orleans, including the rebranding of the Louisiana Superdome. Under Trumpet's guidance, the Superdome, which had become the ultimate symbol for suffering after Katrina, was transformed into a symbol of resiliency and rebirth.

Trumpet further improved New Orleans' fortunes by creating an integrated campaign for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau (NOMCVB) that substantially boosted travel to New Orleans and a "Get Behind the Badge" recruitment appeal for the New Orleans Police Foundation that drew a record number of recruits to a police force decimated after Katrina.

In more recent months, Trumpet built, a new Web site for the city that delivers on Mayor Mitch Landrieu's promise of transparency in government.

Government and public works jobs don't necessarily pay as much as Trumpet's gigs for private sector clients, of course, but the company sees this work as reaping dividends down the line. "A lot of these projects are opportunities for us to shape the city that we live in," McGuinness reasons. "We're doing it for our children, we're doing it for ourselves and we're doing it for the city that we love. I tell people that in this business, where often you find yourself trying to figure out how to sell cheese or how to find some clever way to say, 'The bleach makes your whites whiter,' it is gratifying to have so many projects that we consider meaningful and transformative for a city and a region."

Trumpet continues to work on a mix of restorative projects for local private and public entities. At press time, the company was developing the brand identity, strategy and marketing platform for Benson Tower, an office building adjacent to the Superdome; creating an identity and design plan for Champions Square; providing services in research, identity, branding and Web site development for Lafitte Redevelopment, a mixed-income housing development that will replace the former Lafitte Housing Projects; and formulating a comprehensive marketing campaign to lure younger visitors to the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.

Start-Up City

Beyond branding and marketing efforts, Trumpet is all about entrepreneurship these days, aggressively pursuing business-development opportunities through its Trumpet Ventures arm. Created in 2009, Trumpet Ventures works with local start-ups, providing everything from funding to product development expertise to marketing expertise. "A lot of people who started businesses after Katrina showed up on our doorstep. We became the Ellis Island of entrepreneurs here," McGuinness says.

Trumpet Ventures, which earned Trumpet a spot on Fast Company's 2010 list of Top 10 innovators in advertising and marketing alongside the likes of CP+B, Mr Youth and Firstborn, has helped a number of local start-up companies get off the ground and achieve nationwide distribution for their products.

Among the success stories: the Bruise Relief skin care line, sold in CVS and Walgreens stores; thriv Natural Performance, an athletic apparel brand found in Sports Authority stores; Feelgoodz flip flops, available in Whole Foods; and NakedPizza, a healthy pizza chain that has attracted billionaire investors Mark Cuban and Robert Kraft.

You might be surprised to hear there are so many thriving small businesses in New Orleans these days, McGuinness acknowledges, noting that the media has missed this story for the most part. But New Orleans has become, in recent years, what McGuinness describes as "a laboratory of social enterpreneurship and business innovation." It's a positive change in New Orleans' overall business culture that came directly out of Katrina, according to McGuinness, who says, "Katrina gave us a five-year head start on tackling economic issues that the rest of the country, relatively speaking, only recently started to feel."

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