RadioShack tries some funky brand-altering substances

Here we go again. In June, side effects we blogged about Pizza Hut experimenting with becoming “The Hut” (Pizza Hut drops the Pizza.. again – spoiler alert, Jabba was not pleased). Now Radio Shack, fresh off its announcement that Lance Armstrong will represent it (blog entry here), has announced that on August 6, it will be rebranding as – wait for it: The Shack

My take: resist the Temptation(s)… 

Psychedelic Shack
Cover of the Temptations' 1970 album where they experimented with brand-altering substances - apologies to the band for the rip-off, but buy the album. It's great.

Come in and take a look at your mind

This past weekend, on the way to the cottage, I reintroduced myself (and my very patient wife and kids) to one of my favourite campy-classic albums The Temptations 1970 Psychedelic Shack – hear it here / buy it here. Very funky, very funny, and obviously written under the influence of the hippy era (and probably a lot of other stuff too).

People let me tell you about a place I know
To get in it don’t take much dough
Where you can really do your thing, oh yeah
It’s got a neon sign outside that says
Come in and take a look at your mind
You’d be surprised what you might find, yeah

The Temptations

Take a look at your mind indeed – and be surprised. Because, while this is very entertaining, catchy music, the first reaction of anyone I’ve played this for is: “What were they smoking? That’s not the Temptations!”

The Temptations of the mind.
The Temptations of the mind.

That’s because the Temptations are imprinted in the public’s mind as a sweet-singing, sharp-dressing, doo-wop group with such amazing mid-60’s hits as “My Girl” and “Get Ready“. The funkadelic hippy incarnation of the Temptations seems like a totally different band / brand – and an aberration in their development.

“But hey, that’s not fair!” you say. Shouldn’t an artist have the freedom to break out of the genre box and try something new? Why shouldn’t Billy Bob try to rebrand himself as a rockabilly musician as if his movie career never existed? Why shouldn’t a classic electronics retail brand try to reinvent itself in a cooler, funkier package?

Because life, and more to the point the life of a brand, isn’t fair. 

The RadioShack of the mind

And speaking of funky little retro-branded shacks with neon signs outside, that brings us to “The Shack”. As a child of the 1970’s, here’s how RadioShack appears in my mind.

In my brain, RadioShack isn’t all positive: this brand could be a crass, hard-selling little shyster. But it was where the first computer I ever used came from (one of these – a TRS-80 as seen in this Smithsonian archive), where I bought my first AM radio and my first video game (this Pong / Skeet shooting hybrid) and it’s where I always went for batteries and obscure electronic components and cables throughout the 80’s and 90’s.

So while I’ll admit it’s a flawed and faded brand in my brain, RadioShack still there, and I still smile when I see that ad above.  So why shouldn’t they do what the Temptations did and re-package themselves to keep up with the times?

6 Reasons Radio Shack shouldn’t become “The Shack”

The RadioShack of the mind.
1) 88 Years of brand equity. Just as the Temptations couldn’t turn their brand on a dime, the Radio Shack brand comes with a lot of baggage – and value – in the form of customer expectations. Pop quiz: can you name another consumer electronics retailer that has a longer history? Trick question. There isn’t one. Founded in 1921, Radio Shack is pretty firmly established in the public’s mind by now. Yes “radio” is a quaint and old fashioned word, but in the hands of the right brand manager, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And if you must change, handle the public’s expectations (and hang-ups) with care.

2) Radio Shack, the company, is in decline. As lampooned in this Onion article from 2007, it’s hard to imagine how RadioShack stays in business, and indeed, despite some recent cost-cutting that temporarily buoyed the numbers, analysts feel the same way. Rebranding is most successful when it is seen as part of a positive change in the history of the organization. Otherwise it just looks like “rearranging the deck chairs” at best, as a hoplessly desparate act at worst.

3) There are no shortcuts. As discussed last week (see the NOMO series), an abbreviation is seldom a strong brand. “FedEx” was able to pull it off when it shortened from “Federal Express” because the resulting word was an even stronger, more distinctive name. But just like “The Hut”, “The Shack” doesn’t contain enough a) information, or b) character to serve as a strong platform for a new brand. It seems like a step backwards.

4) It’s tough to use grammatically.  think about the difference between “Team Radio Shack” and “Team The Shack”. If it’s difficult to use, people won’t use it. Don’t believe me? Look North. In Canada, where the Radio Shack chain was purchased by Circuit City, they rebranded as “The Source – by Circuit City”. The name doesn’t have the distinctiveness, penetration, or staying power of “Circuit City” so many people used that instead; I’ve heard it called “Circuit City Source”. Now they’ve dropped the “by Circuit City”, but it’s still awkward. 

5) It’s not a Shack! Okay, this may strike readers as incredibly petty-minded, but it always bugs me when a retail company chooses a metaphor like “__Shack” “__Hut” “__House” or “___Chalet” and then doesn’/t reinforce the metaphor through the design of its outlets. Not cheesy or over the top of course, but just a distinctive roofline, a few subtle hints to give the store “placeness”.

6) It cheapens the brand. but the biggest problem in my opinion is that by using a name that is slang shorthand (and trendy), Radio Shack is cheapening its image and thus  playing into the hands of one of its most damaging negative sterotypes: that it is a purveyor of cheap, outdated, breakable products.  This is what is killing RadioShack, not the name. “The Shack” sounds even cheaper, and what’s worse, it makes an 88 year old company sound like a fly-by-night! Which may turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How to do it right

If Radio Shack really wanted to refresh its image, my recommendation would have been in two steps: 

a) Work to find your DIFFERs: a set of key differentiators, based on “real brand” attributes in the public mind – which you would then use as “themes” to guide an upgrade program for the whole organization: prove to people that you offer better products, better service, better experience. Then, only once this is well underway, and you can show tangible results, should you…

b) Re-launch your brand: using the themes established in #1 as pillars of your new positioning, name, design system, and promise to customers.

NOMO lie number 2: all acronyms are bad

(Part 3 of a 4-part NOMO series about abbreviated brand names) Right, more about so this week we’ve dealt with nomonyms, order our term for any unhelpful abbreviated names, tadalafil initialisms like IBM, and whether they can be a brand at all. And later we’ll deal with the 25 worst acronyms of all time. But first: acronyms. And here’s my lie about them: all acronyms are bad.

The happy couple in the merger of Russia's Gazprom and Nigeria's NNPC: the awkward new name "NIGAZ" (pronounced "NIGH-gaz" - no really)

So yeah. It was a lie: not all acronyms are bad.M

But just as initialisms are not a good choice for the vast majority of products and companies, acronyms are very difficult to do well, and are fraught with hidden perils – as the well-meaning folks in the picture above thought when they chose their acronym – based name, or the example we commented on last month: the SciFi channel, who thought Syfy would make a spiffy (not “siffy”) name for their channel rebrand.

What is a (real) acronym?

But lets be clear what an acronym actually is. The word is used as a blanket term for all abbreviations – as in this Wikipedia post, which starts off making the distinction between acronym and initialism, but then ends up lumping them together. A true acronym has to meet three tests :

  • a. It must be the abbreviation of a series of words, which
  • b. creates an actual word that people can realistically use in everyday conversation, and
  • c. the new word must stick — that is it must actually be used by people as a proxy for the longer phrase.

Meeting criteria a. is really, really easy. Anyone can take a bunch of letters and throw them together into a sequence. But if the combination is “YTJNE” it’s not an acronym, it’s an initialism.

Which brings us to criteria b. This one seems easy, but is actually devilishly difficult in practice. And criteria c. is the hardest of all, since this involves actually convincing people to use the name you create – and preferably without rolling their eyes or laughing aloud.

Why it’s so hard

It’s like trying to give yourself a nickname. In my early brand-geek days (when I was 8), I tried to get my friends to call me “Tater” (don’t ask). But of course it didn’t work. Why? because it was my idea of what would be cool, not other people’s idea of what FIT me.

Because essentially that’s what an acronym is – a nickname.  Think about how we call Coca-Cola “Coke”. We know the “official” version, but saying “Coke” feels more familar, more friendly. A good nickname is a proxy; a good acronym is a short, catchy version of a longer name that people are aware of, but if the right handle comes along, they’ll use it.

The secret to good acronyms

So here’s the key: a successful acronym has to be so simple, so elegant, so natural, that it feels like it was you customer’s idea all along. Essentially, it has to be a useful tool to help people notice, remember, and refer to you. Oh, wait, that’s our definition for a brand!

  • Successful acronyms like “laser”,”NASA”, “Benelux”, and “UNICEF” are easy to say, easy to remember, and natural to use. When this is the case, the acronym actually supercedes the full name in the customer’s mind. I was an adult before I learned that UNICEF was anything but a strong stand-alone brand name. Quick: what does “scuba” stand for? Most people don’t even realize that it’s an acronym for “self contained underwater breathing apparatus”. That’s how natural a good acronym should be.
  • Unsuccessful acronyms are either unwieldy (UNRWA – pronounced “un-rah”), unpleasant to say (GATT), or just too long (PUMCODOXPURSACOMLOPOLAR – Pulse Modulated Coherent Doppler-Effect X-Band Pulse-Repetition Synthetic-Array Pulse Compression Side Lobe Planar Array).
  • Really awful acronyms: At their worst, acronyms are so laughably bad they make news on their own – ususally because the combination of letters forms a word that is just too much of a stretch. But we’re reserving those for another post.

The whole NOMO series:

An abbreviation is not a brand, & all acronyms are bad! (NOMO part 2)

(Part 2 of a series about abbreviated brand names.) Yesterday, healing I ranted about the use of nomonyms (unhelpful abbreviations) in government. But of course, page as you’ll read in this and subsequent posts, the problem of bad abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms goes far beyond government. But the two biggest problems of all are right in the headline…

Just a few of the exciting things you can expect from SMC - a TLA extraordinaire.
Just a few of the exciting things you can expect from SMC - a TLA extraordinaire.

Whoops. I lied. Twice.

Okay, a confession. In the headline, I lied a little – sort of. And what’s more, I kind of lied twice. But they’re well-meaning white lies, so if you can forgive me, I’ll explain why I lied. Today, I’ll deal with lie number one, on abbreviations. Tomorrow we’ll deal with lie number 2 and the problems with actual acronyms.

Lie number 1 (sort of): an abbreviation is not a brand.

What I’m talking about here are a specific kind of abbreviation: initialisms. These are names where you take the first letters of a longer name or set of names, and create a “monogram” for the company – like “IBM”.

So I hear some readers screaming “But IBM is a brand – and a really, really valuable brand!” Yup. It sure is. Actually it’s the second most valuable brand in the world. As I said before, I lied.

And here are a few more names that make me look like a really big fat liar: H&M, AIG, SMC, HP, HSBC, ING. All giants in the branding world. So yeah, my pants are seriously on fire. An abbreviation actually can be a brand – and it can even be a very powerful brand, maybe even second best in the world.

So is naming your product or company with an initialism a smart idea? Absolutely not!

That’s because, while it turns out an abbreviated name can become a brand (shame on me), an initialism is not inherently a brand, and strategically, not the right choice for 99% of products. It the names of all these things are exerting a negative drag on their “brandness” (communication value).
Just think about the names again. Chances are you recognize most of those abbreviations. But look again.

I lied again: SMC is a fake.

The many faces of SMC.
A google search showing the many potential brands of SMC.

Or rather, SMC is a real name, but not one you’ve ever heard of unless you’re into SMC pneumatic automation products (and who isn’t really?). Or maybe you went to SMC (Santa Monica College), use the SMC (State Machine Compiler), climb with the SMC (Scottish Mountaineering Club), belong to the SMC (Small to Medium Company business councils), or are active in a SMC (Social Media Club – which is where I first heard the term and got stumped).

Or maybe you’re a marketing executive at the Irvine California high tech hardware company called SMC Networks . If so, best of luck with that. They’ve been around since 1971, own the dot-com, and still can’t hit #1 on Google.

Be like IBM at your peril

The big brands I mentioned above – including IBM – are successful in spite of the limitations imposed by their current names, not because the names themselves are strong. And note that most of them became major brands under whatever name their current moniker is short for. International Business Machines is a dull, descriptive clunker, but that name was the company for most of its history, and still exists as a hidden secondary brand. That’s because a TLA can’t exist in a vacuum; when people encounter one, they do what you just did. They try to figure out what the heck T-L-A stands for (Three Letter Abbreviation – see?).

A TLA is an empty vessel, which people will try to fill with meaning. Now you can invest decades of time, or gajillions of dollars helping them FILL that container with your preferred meanings, but just remember SMC. If that’s your strategy, you’d darn well better be ready to outspend the Scottish Mountaineering Club – and all the other SMCs. Which is another problem: you can never really own a TLA – or a FLUA (Four Letter Unintelligible Acronym), or other random assembly of letters.

IBM does. Because they’re IBM.

So giving your startup company a TLA “because it works for IBM” is kind of like an ambitious but poor college grad buying a $100,000 car because that’s what rich people do…

So if I have a TLA, how can it become a brand?

Basically, if you want to build a brand around a TLA it has to meet my three basic criteria for a brand:

  1. People (other than you and your inner circle) have to notice it and understand that the name equals the company, product, or concept you’re trying to promote;
  2. People (other than you) have to remember it (or at least have a fighting chance of doing so if they try); and
  3. People (other than you) have to use it as a tool to speak about you to others with the reasonable assumption that others will understand and be able to go back to #1).

And with a TLA, all of these thing sbecome much harder.

So if you are SMC, RPQ, or XYZ, and you can’t change for the moment, then you have my sympathy. Now get to work. Your customers need you.

If you are considering becoming TLA Inc. or launching your new product TLA, and if your boss is telling you it’s a good idea, please slow down. There are lots of ways to find a much better name.

  • Tomorrow: all acronyms are bad (which is also a lie, but we’ll discuss why).
  • Friday: the worst acronyms ever. (not a lie. these are really bad).

The whole NOMO series: