How RadioShack Plans to Rescue Itself from Irrelevance
It’s easy to make fun of RadioShack. Even RadioShack is doing it: Its hit Super Bowl ad featured a cavalcade of 1980s pop culture figures ransacking the dated-looking electronics retailer.
Punch line: “The ’80s called; they want their store back.”
Good one! But now that the chuckling has died down: Can RadioShack really reinvent its image? Or is it doomed to be a trivia-question answer like all the other dated and faded icons in its ad?
The scale of the challenge for RadioShack was underscored just days after the big game, with reports that it would be closing 500 locations. It is expected to announce its 2013 financial results soon, and given that the fourth quarter was tough on many retailers, that could be another buzzkill. Thus the company makes for a fascinating case study: Can even a universally known, practically iconic technology-related brand that’s fallen out of step with the times really update its image in the popular mind?
That Super Bowl ad, after all, was meant to serve as a kickoff: It ends with a promise that “It’s time for a new RadioShack” and a glimpse of an airy, redesigned version of the store. Now a fresh round of marketing is rolling out, promoting a vision of the RadioShack idea updated, however belatedly, for the 21st century.
Recent years have been brutal to many household-name brick-and-mortar brands that ended up being associated with the wrong side of tech innovation. Blockbuster was ubiquitous when it blew off a chance to buy a young Netflix; now it’s disappearing. Circuit City, Tower Records and Borders were familiar markers on the retail landscape; none survived the Internet era. Even stalwarts like Best Buy have had to adjust to an Amazon world.
I asked RadioShack’s chief marketing officer, Jennifer Warren, if it wasn’t risky to start a rejuvenation effort by linking the brand to Hulk Hogan, Dee Snider, ALF and other 1980s pop ephemera that we’d rather remember fondly than actually experience again.
“What we concluded was it was riskier not to do something like this,” she told me. The reason: RadioShack’s own extensive research, involving perceptions gathered from “thousands” of consumers. The results weren’t pretty, and the chain’s dated, throwback image had to be met “head-on.”
In other words, step one in reinventing a brand is admitting that the brand needs reinvention. Warren — who came on as CMO last year from the agency Razorfish — pointed to a couple of potentially relevant case studies. Domino’s was blunt in reacting to negative views of its pizza quality a few years ago, and that honesty helped it rebuild its reputation. Then there’s Old Spice, she said, which had a your-father’s-brand vibe but made bold marketing moves (notably Old Spice Guy) to reinvent itself.
“We did talk about that brand,” she added, “and how there were some parallels to ours as a brand that kind of lost its way and became irrelevant.”
Ouch. So step two is the new direction. RadioShack’s new ad agency, Austin-based GSD&M, had a strong debut with that Super Bowl ad. But now what? Scott Brewer, a GSD&M group creative director, told me there are some positives in the chain’s consumer research that it can build on: “People did love and have a nostalgic attachment to RadioShack. They didn’t want to see it go away.”