Commentary

Best Buy's 'College' Humor Undermines Brand Offering

Remember the glacial lead-up to Radio Shack’s bankruptcy last year? Despite a decade’s worth of concerns about the viability of its business model and reports that it might not have been the world’s most decent or accommodating employer, the almost celebratory reaction to the filing seemed a bit much. Bankruptcies are uniformly ruinous. Perhaps we could’ve saved our delicious one-liners (“oh, NOW where am I going to buy blank cassettes and ham radio components?!!!!?!??!?!”) for an occasion that didn’t put a whole lot of people out of work. Maybe?

I thought of this as I strolled around a Best Buy last week for the first time in a while. I made the mistake of assuming that the chain still sells what it used to sell in 2004, which meant that I had to break the news to my kid that he’d have to stream “Monsters University” rather than experience it in Blu-Ray super-definition. (He’s four. He’ll recover.)

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That said, I was really impressed by the modern-day incarnation of Best Buy. The outpost I visited was a sort of umbrella store housing a bunch of brand mini-stores, staffed by employees who seemed to have some reasonable degree of familiarity with the products they were pushing. Everybody and everything gave off a “hey, we actually give a shit” vibe, which is rare in modern-day selling. Apparently members of the Geek Squad now make house calls, too, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Will this attentiveness and overt willingness to serve help Best Buy avoid the same dark fate as Radio Shack? Beats the dickens out of me. But it’d sure be swell if Best Buy decided to focus its branding efforts around its first-rate customer-support infrastructure, rather than dabble in teen-targeted silliness like “Best Buy Presents: How to College With Adam Devine.”

The clip, which attempts to position Best Buy as the go-to electronics merchant for college-bound kids, exudes obnoxiousness. In it, Devine inserts himself into a handful of typical academic settings - a library, a lecture hall, a sunny quad - and pushes tech gear on people who, unless they were recently teleported from 1994, wouldn’t seem to need it. Professor types get a new phone, students get a laptop/tablet combo, etc. Throw in an out-of-place jab at home-schooled students, and you’ve got the perfect storm of weirdly and off-puttingly targeted humor.

Devine may or may not be a funny dude (again: my viewing rotation now features an animated critter voiced by that delightful Billy Crystal fellow, so assume a degree of comic taste/sophistication at your own risk). Here, however, he’s Jack Black at his amped-up, ascending-the-Mt.-Everest-of-deliberate-abrasiveness worst. The video would make a fine exhibit A in any call for a larger, more prominently displayed mute button on your phone or computer screen.

It wouldn’t have mattered if Best Buy sprung for the actual Jack Black, though. “How to College” deliberately veers away from a defining brand characteristic in the interest of appealing to an audience that doesn’t have much use for the product/service being hawked. As such, it’s the least excusable kind of brand misfire: One that could easily have been avoided with a simple appeal to the brand team’s common sense.

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