How to Destroy a Brand

Not too long ago, in need of a flash drive, I dropped by my local RadioShack. I picked out the cheapest flash drive I could find, went over to the counter, and paid cash. Only as I was walking out the door did I look at my receipt, which revealed that I’d just paid 93 cents for “insurance” on my $10 drive. The young woman behind the counter tried to convince me that I’d be glad I had insurance if I ever lost the drive. She was more than a little unhappy when I demanded she refund my “insurance” premium.

I recalled that incident the other day when I read that RadioShack is closing 1,100 U.S. stores. Management blamed the closings on its customers, which is a pretty good sign it doesn’t have a clue about how to fix the problems. Yes, we know that the Internet has changed the way people shop, etc., etc. But RadioShack’s problems go well beyond the Internet. It’s a company whose managers have systematically destroyed the value of its brand.

If you’ve ever dropped by my local RadioShack, which the suits from Fort Worth headquarters clearly have not, you’d find a couple of bored-looking teenagers hanging around behind the counter. Do they welcome customers? Nope. Do they offer to help you find what you’re looking for? Not a chance. Do they convey the impression of being knowledgeable about the products sold in their store? Absolutely not. And so I associate the RadioShack brand with untrained clerks who earn minimum wage and were instructed by their boss to rip me off of 93 cents by charging me for “insurance” I was not asked about and did not want. I’m willing to tolerate that environment if I need a $10 flash drive in a hurry. But would I go there if I were looking to spend, say, several hundred dollars on smartphone or a sound system? Not a chance, no matter how good the merchandise might be.

Management, of course, is in denial about the mess it’s made. Just check out its website:
“Through our ‘It Can Be Done, When We Do It Together’ brand positioning, Radioshack is inviting customers to collaborate with our expert associates to discover the unlimited possibilities of technology, while experiencing our new interactive store environments.” Right. Maybe the “expert associates” are in some other store. And you might note that in the website text I just quoted, the company wrote its own brand name incorrectly, with a small “s” in RadioShack instead of an upper-case letter. If a company doesn’t care enough about its brand to use its style consistently, that’s not a good sign.

RadioShack is by no means the first retailer to destroy its own reputation. A&P, then the world’s largest retailer, became an also-ran almost overnight when it allowed its stores to get dingy and its prices high. Sears used to cultivate an image of solid value for your dollar; now, its image is hard to figure out. Winn-Dixie’s executives at one point tried to promote their fresh meat and produce while simultaneously removing light bulbs from the ceiling; that only drove customers away and hastened the company’s trip to bankruptcy court. Circuit City’s bosses had the brilliant idea of firing their highest-paid salespeople, in the process destroying the chain’s reputation as a place to get good advice about electronics. Predictably, that did not end well.

RadioShack has done much the same. Now, having made its brand a negative, the company is in a difficult spot. It’s hard to mount a comeback when the very mention of your name makes prospective customers want to shop elsewhere.

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