Three Brands We're Rooting For
Financial markets don't succumb to nostalgia -- a failing business model is a failing business -- but people are different. We may not shop someplace just because we have warm fuzzy feelings for the store, but we're often sad to see it go.
Here are a few brands that still tug at the heart strings. Business is just bad enough to put each at risk of disappearing, but these brands also still have value. Given the right mix of leadership and capital investment, each could stick around for a lot longer.RadioShack
It often comes as a surprise that RadioShack was originally part of larger company called Tandy Corp., founded as a leather goods retailer in 1919. RadioShack began in 1921, serving ham radio operators and didn't become part of Tandy until the 1960s.
RadioShack sold one of the first personal computers in 1977, the Commodore PET. Senior executives for the chain used to describe a typical transaction as someone coming into a store, holding their thumb and forefinger an inch or so apart, and saying "I need one of these."
Apparently the market for those parts, adapters and connectors only found at RadioShack has fallen off. After a few attempts to enter new markets -- home installation, wireless phone kiosks -- and open new concepts -- Carphone Warehouse, Computer City -- it's now rumored to be a take-over target. Except that no one is interested in taking it over.
The recent move to reinvigorate the brand seems to be falling flat. Renaming RadioShack "The Shack" seems to ring false and the new private label products marketed under the name Enercell (wireless charging devices) don't differentiate much from better known brands in the category like Powermat and Duracell. And now, the guy brought in to navigate a turnaround, Julian Day, says he's retiring as chairman and CEO in May. Day won't even retain a seat on the board of directors.
But RadioShack still has nearly 4,700 stores, employs 35,000 people and operates thousands of kiosks and dealer outlets nationally. It's not the Shack we're rooting for, but the RadioShack we used to be able to walk into confused and get an $8 part that we can't name.
The name Polaroid stirs up such strong emotions and the instant format has such loyal fans, the brand's signature product wasn't allowed to go away even when its leadership shut it down in 2008. Efforts to save Polaroid and its iconic instant film gave rise to The Impossible project, a group of former employees that managed to once again produce the film.
Polaroid as a company has slowly been finding its footing, thanks to private equity, and trying to bring instant photography into the digital age. The company's Zink, an inkless print technology, allows for instant prints of digital images. But Zink hasn't struck a cord in the same way traditional Polaroid film has; the prints are thin and the colors are weak compared to the film versions. Three years ago, the Polaroid booth at the Consumer Electronics Show was dull and even those paid to promote the product showed less enthusiasm than the attendees holding out hope for a Polaroid rebirth.
Enter Lady Gaga.
The entertainer was named Creative Director of Polaroid in January 2010. Lady Gaga lost no time in promoting the Polaroid brand and one year later, she unveiled three new products under Polaroid's Grey Label line, at a much reinvigorated Polaroid booth at CES.
There's a digital camera that looks like a bulkier version of the original Polaroid camera and spits out a photo in much the same manner, using the Zink print technology; a printer that works with mobile devices like smartphones to instantly print images directly from the phone (at CES Apple's iPhone was not supported but it is expected to be on board by launch); and a pair of sunglasses with a built-in camera that take and display images on the lens.
Lady Gaga may be a lot of things, but she certainly sells products. Pairing her brand with Polaroids may well save the greying lady.
Bookstores and the publishing industry are particularly challenged these days. Small bookstores are increasingly hard to find, and now one of the large national chains is at risk of folding. But Borders is almost out of cash and may not last much longer. Of all the three brands mentioned here, Borders has the least to offer as a business, and the least likelihood of escaping this fate.
But it's also the one I'm cheering for the most, and not just because I'm a writer.
Every time a bookstore closes, the consumer and the community loses. We lose a meeting area, a warm place to wander in winter and a cool place to retreat to on a hot summer's day. Bookstores are the libraries of our time, but are more numerous, are better stocked and stay open later. And they let you talk and laugh and drink lattes brewed at the in-house coffee bar.
There may not be much that can save Borders -- the chain owes nearly $445 million to publishers. Borders makes up just 10% of the marketplace and Amazon.com dominates as the largest bookseller, so suppliers are unlikely to cut Borders any slack, at least for much longer.
Still, it's worth hoping and cheering it on.