InMarket: Bringing Alf and Erik Estrada together

Who can bring Alf and Erik Estrada together?

Fort Worth’s own RadioShack that’s who. If nothing else, the era of new CEO Joseph Magnacca has given us that. For the company, the Super Bowl commercial last February was a high point of what has been a very static-filled ride. But the commercial did give the retailer a boost in mindshare and even gave it a much-needed lift on the stock market. Still, as RadioShack chief marketing officer Jennifer Warren readily admits, “We’re in the middle of a turnaround.” Speaking April 16 at a meeting of the Fort Worth chapter of the American Advertising Federation, Warren, who has held a leadership role at national agencies including Razorfish, GSD&M and T-3 before joining the Battery Club, gave the crowd at Joe T.’s a glimpse behind the polyester curtain at how the struggling retailer was able to pull off the Alf, Erik Estrada confab.

Warren said the company did a lot of customer research to determine what its brand represented before beginning a new marketing campaign. She followed some advice from a certified retail genius, Sam Walton: “Whenever you get confused, go to the store. The customers have the answers.” RadioShack officials interviewed customers, past and present. Some things were good, some not so good. Some were just plain funny. They asked one customer what came to mind when RadioShack was mentioned. The reply: “My uncle who has a mullet and wears jorts.” It’ll take a lot of marketing to get over that image. Those things were tough to hear, but as Warren says, “If you don’t know what’s wrong, you can’t fix it.” The company also heard plenty from customers who used to go to the store in the ‘80s, but had since avoided it; not thinking the store carried any relevant technology. “We also heard us compared to MacGyver a lot,” she said. Those conversations led to the 30-second Super Bowl ad featuring ’80s icons; the ad was designed as a reintroduction to RadioShack.

The ad, titled “The Phone Call,” features icons from ’80s pop culture who show up to reclaim the technology of their decade. The spot opens in a throwback RadioShack store where an associate receives a warning phone call before familiar ’80s personalities including Alf, Estrada, Hulk Hogan, Mary Lou Retton and Kid ‘n’ Play, among others, enter and “take back” their technology to the sound of Loverboy’s guitars and synthesizers cranking out “Working for the Weekend.” It was shot over the holidays prior to the Super Bowl as RadioShack’s advertising and media partner, Austin-based GSD&M, gave Warren daily updates. She said she received phone calls like “Cindi Lauper is out, but Dee Snider is in.” “Getting all the people in the same location wasn’t easy, but somehow it all came together,” she said. Shot in a Los Angeles-area RadioShack, the spot got high marks, rating No. 3 on the USA Today poll, a key metric. Extended online footage and Twitter giveaways extended the message. The extra online footage featured segments such as Alf bringing in an old phone and asking if a RadioShack employee could help him play music. The employee shows the puppet alien a new phone that allows him to play music through a speaker.

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The retailer’s next advertising campaign will commence in the third quarter, Warren said. And the company is making inroads with the “maker” movement, in which hobbyists make cool projects and products using robotics, microcontrollers and new technologies such as 3-D printing. Sound familiar to old RadioShack fans? It should. CEO Magnacca will speak at the next Maker Faire and the company is currently stocking various items used by many in the maker movement. It’s more than reminiscent of how many of us growing up experienced RadioShack as a place to build our electronic dreams. RadioShack isn’t out of the woods yet. As Warren noted about turnarounds: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” But at least they brought Alf and Erik Estrada together.