Spare the Change

Archie comics, espresso beans and low-fat yogurt: when to leave well enough alone.


Archie comics, espresso beans and low-fat yogurt: when to leave well enough alone.

Standing in line at Safeway one day, I was gazing idly at the cover of an Archie comic – one of the new ones, with the redesigned characters first launched in 2007. These days Classic Archie and New Archie sit side by side in magazine racks. This particular issue featured Jughead and his would-be girlfriend Ethel, the perennially gawky, buck-toothed gal with the unquenchable crush. Except that in this version, Ethel looked pretty good. “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?” somebody muttered behind me.

Exactly. Pretty soon the other shopper and I were busy devising new scenarios (it was a long lineup). Why wait around for that disinterested glutton, Ethel? Post-makeover, she could take up with Reggie. Jughead – never interested in women, obviously – would then be free to pair up with Moose, who would grow a beard and change his name to Bear. Why not? As part of a new targeted marketing strategy, it would be a big seller in parts of Vancouver.

Riverdale High is the original Old School. The timeless quality of the Archie series is surely a large part of its appeal – witness the recent fad that involved young women self-identifying as Bettys or Veronicas. But the franchise traditions are no longer sacrosanct. Word recently leaked that the eternal triangle at the heart of the series would soon end with an Archie-Veronica wedding.

The whole redesign has a New Coke odour to it. But it doesn’t seem to have been a similar public relations fiasco: recent sales figures suggest that issues featuring the newly redesigned characters sell respectably, although not better than traditional versions.

Chasing new business is a worthy goal. But it can be dicey. Case in point: until recently I always bought coffee beans at a particular place on Commercial Drive. Travelled quite a distance to get there too. Then they changed the blend. My motivation to make that long trip disappeared.

The café offered other blends, one of which might well have suited my needs. But there is a certain illogical aspect to consumer loyalty. I stuck to that particular bean blend because I knew it worked for me. There’s an almost magical quality to that consumer-product relationship. Once that sense of certainty disappeared, I figured I might just as well hunt for my homemade rocket fuel somewhere closer by.

My bean loyalty even carried a whiff of superstition. I didn’t exactly understand why that blend worked while the beans sold by my regular espresso hangout failed to work well in my home machine. But I didn’t have to think about it; I just had to keep buying the same blend. That’s the relationship retailers dream of. Shame to throw it away.

Consumer decisions tend to be anything but logical, a fact that can play hell with rational marketing strategies. But usually there’s a good reason why we buy what we do. I used to stock up on Safeway’s Lucerne brand low-fat yogurts until an inexplicable re-formulation introduced an odd aftertaste. Now I won’t touch the stuff. I would love to find out what they were thinking when they made that move.

As for Archie and friends, it’s hard to know what the publishers are thinking; their own official sales figures do not show large readership declines in the past year. Still, they clearly believe that without innovation their young target market will pass them by. But sometimes change just isn’t necessary. Take Archie’s longtime nemesis, Reggie: the classic narcissist, slick, self-satisfied and apparently well off, judging by his ride. Once upon a time, Reggie was a stereotypical villain. Now, thanks to the rise of hip-hop culture, Reggie embodies the values and image most often celebrated in music videos. The times have caught up with him; Reggie is hip hop. No redesign required.