Grisly news of a corpse in a used car lot wasn't exactly the kind of publicity Jack Colletti had in mind when he bought Stars and Stripes.
In May, Colletti purchased the 138-year-old private military paper, which shouldn't be confused with European & Pacific Stars and Stripes, which split with the domestic version in 1942, and is now distributed by the Pentagon. (This overseas edition gained notoriety last weekend, when police in the nation's capital discovered a corpse believed to be one of its editors.)
Colletti's plan? Turn the nation's veterans, many of whom loyally read Stars and Stripes, into consumers via a Web start-up. An agreeable former Navy officer with an MBA, Colletti, 30, had some experience in the business theater: He'd already sold an investing-club site and started iserved.com, designed to give vets career advice. Acquiring Stars and Stripes gave him a big-gun brand.
On Monday, Colletti hired decorated veteran and former Pittsburgh Steeler Rocky Bleier as a columnist and spokesman for his new venture, Stars and Stripes Omnimedia. Bleier, who suffered injuries in Vietnam before playing in two Super Bowls, now makes a living as a motivational speaker. "We are telling folks that you can make it in civilian life, and you can make it big," says Raji Sankar, the company's cofounder.
Why should two entrepreneurs just out of their 30s be so interested in a military site? For starters, they say it's a largely untapped market. The company will help former soldiers plan reunions, find jobs and track military news, and it will even sell mutual funds and vintage aviation goggles, among other wares.
The idea amounts to more than iVillage in camouflage -- veterans actually spend a lot of time online. Many use the Net to commune with comrades. Martin Markley of Fullerton, Calif., who served as an officer in Korea, now runs the home page of the Third Infantry Division Association. He says membership has grown 10 percent over the past few years. "I made contact via the Internet with the regimental surgeon who worked on me," he says. Steve Van Buskirk, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, adds that soldiers and their children often use the Web to locate each other. "There's probably 10 times the number of reunions that existed 10 years ago," he says.
Marketers and other online entrepreneurs, sensing the strong public responses to "Saving Private Ryan" and John McCain's war heroics, also see big potentials with military-themed Web ventures.
Colletti already faces an offensive from another armed forces site that recently stepped up its mass-marketing strategy. Military.com -- brainchild of Harvard MBA and Naval Reserve officer Chris Michel -- began as an offshoot of the D-Day Museum in New Orleans. It spent the spring lining up venture capital and board-member brass, and like Stars and Stripes, it stepped up its visibility last week. Military.com, in San Francisco, which struck a deal with A&E, five days before Colletti landed Bleier, will hawk A&E's books, videotapes and other goods. (Ross Perot also has unveiled militaryhub.com, a relatively sparse site selling cameras and dude ranches.) "The bit that he's had is all about Ross Perot, military hero," says Mike Levinthal, a venture capitalist and Military.com director.
Levinthal claims there are some 70 million vets, current soldiers and military families, a vast audience that remains up for grabs. But visibility alone doesn't guarantee veterans' trust. Colletti, for instance, realizes he needs to freshen his publication's sagging image. After hiring new reporters, Colletti scooped U.S. News & World report on the controversy surrounding the Associated Press' 1999 series about a Korean War massacre. Now he wants big syndicates like Gannett to carry its content. He's also revamping the newspaper, hoping to reach 300,000 paid subscribers by January -- up from some 10,000 today. Sounds ambitious, but Van Buskirk proclaims his constituents are "delighted with the new ownership and new emphasis."
Meanwhile, European & Pacific Stars and Stripes is less than delighted. It threatened to sue in early May over the name similarities. Colletti's group issued a press release, defending its decisions, but resentment lingers. "Stars and Stripes is a proud name ... that we will nurture and protect within our legal boundaries," said Admiral Bill Owens, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman who serves on Colletti's advisory board.
Meanwhile, Military.com points out that it is way ahead of Stripes, with over 300,000 users in May, according to Media Metrix. "They've done a good job with their newspaper, but I do think it's a smaller business," Military.com's Michel says. The company hopes to soon reach 1 million registered users through its A&E connection.
Still, this is a tough audience to charm. Carl Savino, a retired Army officer who runs a placement service and sends a job-search book to everyone leaving active duty, says the trust of veterans is very fragile and can be broken with the wrong type of marketing. And to prove their integrity, the sites risk expending their rations. That being said, Levinthal doesn't rule out a possible partnership with its rival, with Stripes providing the news feed for his site's memento trove.
After all, a retired Steeler and high-grade TV plugs may get these sites into the vernacular. But it will take plenty of patience and buzz to survive through what is becoming a bloody Web war.