The Archie Rules by Fred Jacobs
By Fred Jacobs
 
Fred Jacobs

I’ve always been a comic book fan, and that’s why a recent story in The New York Times “Business” section hit me between the eyes.  The piece was about yet another comeback for Archie Comics, a franchise that is in the process of being re-energized by a new, younger executive team.
            After reading this article, I couldn’t help but notice that the Archie story is a parable for radio.  In recent years, there has been an ongoing debate about whether there’s even a need for a digital future for the medium.  And not a week goes by when we don’t read contrarian blogs and articles, suggesting that “Radio is fine,” based on steady listening levels – even in the face of relative newcomers like Pandora, YouTube, iTunes, and SYNC.
            And now that there are nearly 50 PPM markets, electronic measurement is often favorable for many well-branded stations, pumping up cume listening stats.  As respondents walk into stores that play broadcast radio stations, commute to work with others who listen to a favorite morning show, and have a radio on in the warehouse or break room, listening levels appear to be healthy – and in some cases, stronger than ever.
            But these are simply “boxcar numbers” that are often pawned off as “vital signs,” merely broad statistics being generated by an improved measurement system that has bridged the gap between perceptual listening and exposure.

            We should not mistake exposure for engagement.
            Talk to anybody in the newspaper, magazine, or music business about the cost of denial.  They’ll tell you they should have moved quicker and more decisively.  Similar to how Kodak turned its back on digital technology – and paid the price – the traditional media world has been profoundly impacted by the Internet, too.  And it’s still only the second inning.
            That’s why the Archie analogy is important.  It gives hope to traditional brands, just as Seth Godin implores “meatball” businesses like radio to tear up the old playbook, and approach a digital strategy from a new, fresh perspective.  As they learned at Archie Comics, this requires recognition, planning, objectivity, resources, and time.
            Here are some of the big takeaways from the Archie experience as their team developed a strategy to remain vital and relevant in a rapidly changing media world:

            1.  Adapt quickly and try new things.  In the world of comics, Archie is a small player.  The DC and Marvel camps are much larger, and the comic book medium is under the same pressures that all traditional media face – especially print.  But Archie’s under-the-radar position – similar to radio – provides a great deal of nimbleness and agility.  Radio has the ability to kick off new shows, features, characters, and other experiments.  And most of the time, they can be put together for a lot less money and time than similar efforts in larger, people-intensive, and more expensive media.

            2.  Take a broader view with your research – and your thinking.  If the Archie team thought like a radio company, they would still be asking about the familiarity and popularity of each character, and how they contribute to one’s enjoyment of the comic.  And if they researched like radio, they’d just be speaking to people who still read Archie.  The avenue for growth is to consider the world outside your own, better understand your place in it, and then start growing your brand to take advantage of it. 

            3.  Glom onto other successes and Pop culture phenomena.  To make more noise and gain more attention for the brand, Archie Comics have brazenly parodied MTV’s Jersey Shore as well as the Twilight series.  Radio and its personality shows used to do a better job of parodying and reflecting Pop culture icons.  Being a part of a bigger story is still something radio can aspire to.

            4.  Offer new platforms. The Archie team realized the traditional comic format was limited, and often not even on sale at mainstream stores.  So, they kicked off a new magazine-sized publication, Life With Archie, in a size that more retailers (like drug stores) are likelier to stock. It’s the same for radio, where podcasts, streams, and mobile apps are all new ways to move great content onto platforms that are becoming more popular and accessible in more places by more consumers.

            5.  Understand where the puck has moved – and embrace digital.  At Archie Comics, there’s no debate about whether digital technology is right for the brand.  Jon Goldwater, one of three new key executives, notes, “I learned that lesson from the music business.  They fought against digital and got burned.”  In ’09, Archie Comics launched a mobile app, ahead of both Marvel and DC.  They continue to look for ways to move their content to digital sources.

            6.  New characters can help, too.  How often do morning shows get mired down with the same cast, when someone new, different, and even unexpected could shake up the team in a good way?  In the Archie series, the new guy – or new gay – on the block is Kevin Keller.  He’s an openly gay character who provides new story ideas, not to mention new readers.  And buzz.  

            7.  If you have a great brand, merchandize it.  The Archie team is going all out to take advantage of its characters and history for everything from Halloween to creating cool wear in stores like Urban Outfitters.  The holidays are coming.  Is your station ready to go with logo wear and other branded products that would make great presents and stocking stuffers?

            8.  If you have a great brand, extend it.  In Archie’s case, they’re looking at long-term plans to create a musical, and if that works, the Riverdale High kids will have a whole new life.  Many radio personalities and stations have the potential to spawn festivals, events, restaurants and bars, and even TV shows.  It takes work, contacts, and time, but there’s no reason why local brand extension can’t be successful.

            9.  Community matters.  It is always wise to bank on good will.  Nancy Silberkleit, one of the new executive team members at Archie Comics, has put considerable effort into creating Comic Book Fairs, a reading and literacy program.  Of course, participating schools are incentivized by the number of Archie Comics they sell, not to mention the value of exposing the brand to growing legions of kids.  Radio typically does community very well, but there is more to be gained by championing events that are keyed to a station’s brand (like music for music stations, town meetings for talk outlets, etc.) than to be one of a dozen logos on yet another mundane fundraiser.             

The Archie Comics story should give us optimism that it is possible to revive and re-energize old-line brands.  Not every initiative their new executive team puts into action is going to be successful.  But they are out there, trying new things, looking for ways to enhance a brand that has enjoyed decades of good will and mass appeal. 
            Radio – like Archie – has the potential to study its assets in light of a new marketplace.  And make bold, strategic moves that can breathe life and energy into well-loved, iconic brands.
            Go Riverdale!  Go radio! 
 

Fred Jacobs is President of Jacobs Media.  The Southfield, Michigan based firm consults many of America’s most successful Classic Rock, Mainstream Rock, and Alternative stations.  Fred can be reached at (248) 353-9030 or fredjacobs@jacobsmedia.com.



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