Branding and Guns

By Kellyn Brown

First of all, so I don’t offend anyone who works there, I’m a fan of RadioShack. It’s where I bought the scanner that crackles next to my desk, and I still wander around the shop from time to time pretending I’m smarter than I am. But the company’s opposition to its Hamilton store’s free gun promotion is wholly unreasonable.

If you haven’t already heard the story, here’s a brief summary:

Steve Strand, the owner of a RadioShack franchise in Hamilton, is offering a free gun (a .380-caliber pistol or .20-gauge shotgun and free background check) for customers who sign up with qualifying Dish Network packages. Or, if you don’t want a gun, you can opt for a $50 gift card to Pizza Hut.

The Ravalli Republic wrote a story on the promotion and it snowballed from there. Soon, the news made CNN, MSNBC and even the gossip site, perezhilton.com – everyone utterly shocked that Montanans who watch television might also like firearms.

Initially RadioShack didn’t object to the promotion, but that changed last week when the company asked Strand to stop and, as he said, “took the position that we’re tarnishing their brand image.”

Let’s take a look at the RadioShack brand. Wired magazine recently published a lengthy piece on the subject. The story, written by Jon Mooallem in the May 2010 issue, chronicles the electronics chain’s attempts to reinvent itself in recent years as competition has increased and, worse, consumers have changed.

RadioShack, which once catered to innovative customers who needed a variety of widgets to work on home projects, has found that there aren’t enough of those anymore. Or, as Mooallem writes:

“The American who built, repaired, and tinkered with technology has evolved into an entirely new species: the American who prefers to slip that technology out of his pocket and show off its killer apps. Once, we were makers. Now most of us are users.”

It’s an accurate, albeit somewhat sad, portrait of this generation. In February, I waited in line at the Kalispell Verizon store to snap up an iPhone at 6:30 a.m. the first day it was offered. Sure enough, the next day I showed off my “killer” apps.

Meanwhile, RadioShack has been redefining its brand to keep up. In 2009, the company announced that it would re-introduce itself as the “The Shack” in advertising and marketing to appeal to a broader audience. It now sells more cellular phones and is less a hobby shop and the business strategy has mostly worked. “Per-store sales are up, and corporate profits jumped 26 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009,” according to Wired.

But while more mainstream, part of RadioShack’s appeal is its relatively small size and comparative quirkiness, and much of the latter can be attributed to the company’s franchise dealerships – like the one in Hamilton offering guns in exchange for a satellite dish.

About 20 percent of all RadioShack locations are dealer/franchise owned and they are granted a fair amount of autonomy. That, until now, has allowed Strand to independently market his products. And partially because of publicity surrounding his recent plight, business has been brisk.

Strand said he has no intention of stopping the promotion and will seek legal representation. In fact, he told the Ravalli Republic he had intended to expand the campaign to include DirectTV units. But that company, for some reason, wanted no part of it and even took the opportunity to take a jab at its competitor, “DirectTV is absolutely not following suit with Dish Network promotion and immediately denied the request for such a promotion the moment it was brought to our attention.”

Instead of opposing a franchise’s successful marketing campaign because it includes guns, RadioShack, to really differentiate its brand from its cookie-cutter competitors, would do far more by embracing the promotion.