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How RadioShack Plans to Rescue Itself from Irrelevance

·Tech Columnist
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.”

Lots of people have fond memories of visiting RadioShack as a kid, and even the name has a sweetly antiquated charm. In contrast, Brewer said, Blockbuster doesn’t seem to produce that same air of nostalgia for consumers.

In fact, part of what makes RadioShack an easy punch line is the vague sense of wonder that it has survived. It’s not just a holdover from the era of Fotomats; it’s still disconcertingly pervasive — even with those reported closures, it would still have 3,800 stores. And its deeper history reaches back much further — the original RadioShack was a Boston store dealing in early radio equipment. (Cutting edge!) Over the decades it became a fixture for weekend-warrior electronics tinkerers, and it even sold one of the first personal computers, the TRS-80.

What’s changed since then is, basically, everything. Tinkerers can buy the latest components for computer or electronics projects online. RadioShack tried moving toward selling more familiar gadgets like cell phones — but those were widely available at big-box stores and elsewhere.

Two sets of GSD&M ads suggest what’s next. One has those ’80s characters from the Super Bowl ad visiting today’s RadioShack and learning about cool technology — Friday the 13th villain Jason 3D-prints a replica of a staffer’s house key, for instance. These are pretty good but are running only online. (Warren says there’s internal discussion about moving some to broadcast and figuring out if there are more possibilities for “leveraging the ’80s.”)

The second batch has typical customers visiting stores and presenting some kind of problem or wish, and a helpful employee suggesting products that could be bundled to solve or fulfill it. These examples are (intentionally, I assume) absurd — a translation helmet made by rigging together a Galaxy S4 and a Beats speaker, a recliner-lounge remote-control command center, and so on.

RadioShack’s roots are in do-it-yourself culture, said Ryan Carroll, another group creative director at GSD&M; he told me the market for the more passive “do-it-for-me” off-the-shelf experience is now saturated. But there’s “a huge group” in the middle. Warren said this “do it together” positioning is “where we’re headed as a brand.”

Few tech brands have the generations-long history of RadioShack; that’s helpful in some ways, but it’s also a challenge to reinvent. Is this really a big, bold and unique enough idea to cut through the clutter and confusion of the modern market? Warren and the GSD&M crew countered that they are just getting started. Warren said that in March about 100 locations will have in-store 3D-printing displays, and he alluded to exciting partnerships, nontraditional marketing tactics and social-media efforts to come. Details are sparse, but so far it seems cautious; there’s certainly no hint of an Old Spice Guy-level phenomenon in the offing.

Meanwhile, there is no shortage of skepticism about whether RadioShack can deliver in the real world — which is of course step three. (The Santa Monica store highlighted in that Super Bowl ad is one of just a handful that have been fully made over.) But Warren insists that enough change has happened already, and customer research indicates high enough satisfaction with existing staff knowledge, to get the word out.

“A lot of people,” she pointed out, “haven’t been into our stores in years.”

You can email the author here. Yahoo Tech is a brand new tech site from David Pogue and an all-star team of writers. Follow us on Facebook for all the latest.