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.