by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Best Buy announced last week that its sales this quarter are down sharply, and that things don't look any better for the rest of the year.

The news came with the requisite promises of "adjustments" to inventory and spending from the finance department. Aside from an oblique reference to "gaining market share," marketing was pretty much silent, which is also typical of these types of announcements.

For a news event, there really wasn't much news involved. The crappy economy has been the cause and/or effect cited in most media stories for the past few months. It would have been surprising had Best Buy said anything positive, as the regulatory obligation and smart business strategy was to lower expectations.

But couldn't it have used the occasion to talk about its brand in terms that would have been relevant to its customers? With the implicit promise that sales would stink, it could have declared that it would:

  • Improve customer service -  The differences between flat screen TVs remain incomprehensible to most people. Folks are cautious about making the wrong purchase even in flush times. Lots of gizmos require integration with services or other gizmos. Imagine doing lots of intensive associate training, incentives, and back-end support to turn customer service into a strategic customer differentiator (and poacher)
  • Launch unique refurb/service offerings - If people aren't buying, then add dimensions to the offering so you give me other/better reasons to visit the store. Where’s the "upgrade your PC" bundle? How about something that lets people make existing products work (or look) better? Maybe add some long-term, back-end services deal to the price on new devices, like an automaker extending its drivetrain warranty?   
  • Experiment - If it's proving hard to drive consumers into stores, it's time to go nuts with innovative ways to work around the problem. How about the aggressive deals to get every vendor, supplier, partner, and associate family member into the stores? Or a social media promo that awards a $500 gift certificate every day (or every hour) through the end of the year? Why couldn't strange, blue light special-like things occur in-store, so there's a reason why you want to be walking around one? 

The "You, Happier" ads are nice, but they're not motivational in a "get off your butt and into the stores" sort of way. They’re almost too nice, promoting vague feelings in a very typical effort to associate the brand with lifestyle. We already know what our "lifestyles" are going to be this holiday   season ... impoverished, or afraid of being so. 

So these spots pretty much attest to the premise that the company expects its prophecy to come true. It could just as easily refuse to go silently into the night, and take the market externalities as an outright dare...not to just suffer, but reaffirm and reinvent its business. That's pure branding upside, isn't it?

I don't know what the marketing would look like, and it's way too late to start making noises about challenging the Status Quo. But if they'd asked me, I would have suggested that Best Buy use this dire sales circumstance to establish better, closer, and more aggressively satisfying relationships with its customers. And that it tell everyone about it.

Then, maybe the prophecy wouldn't be so dire after all.

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