AT&T rolled the dice when it decided to launch its exclusive, much-hyped BlackBerry Bold mobile handset on Nov. 4, a day when much of the country was gripped by a historic presidential election -- to the exclusion of everything else.
On this day, events that would normally draw critical mass saw only light to moderate coverage. A quick search on news portals yielded a sizable pile of Bold-related content that didn't hit until a day after the launch, including a video review of the phone by The Wall Street Journal. For a category reliant on media attention and blogosphere buzz, AT&T's move, taken at face value, is a head-scratcher.
AT&T declined comment on why it picked Election Day to launch the high-end, enterprise smart phone by Research in Motion. But some marketing experts found the strategy intriguing, if not clever.
Election on hold
Deepa Chandrasekaran, a marketing professor at Lehigh University, said it was a novel way to get consumers to remember the launch date while capturing the attention of those looking for something fresh amid ubiquitous election coverage. "You don't have to tell them it's launching on Nov. 4; you just have to say 'Election Day.' This heightens anticipation."
Moreover, contrarian thinking says there was an opening for someone to make a splash on a day when election news silenced everything else. "There's a huge vacuum for anybody else to step up," said Seth Lieberman, CEO at Pangea Media. "It works for someone like BlackBerry, because it's an established brand. It's not like they're trying to brand something."
AT&T was also likely going after reach. One executive noted in the run-up to the election, media was expensive and inventory tight because of the onslaught of political advertising. On Election Day, most political spots were retired, freeing up inventory with a massive audience still intact.
The wireless giant would not say where it advertised the device, but TV spots, created by Omnicom Group's BBDO, New York, ran on CNN all day, and Bold advertising also surfaced on political-news portal Huffington Post. According to Nielsen Media Research, the evening of the election drew a record 71 million TV viewers.
Eric Bradlow, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, suggested AT&T did right by tapping into a politically engaged base on the web. "It's not just reaching a larger number of people that day, it's reaching a specific audience that may have high disposable income because the people who are more engaged in the election are probably ones that form a good target demographic," he said.
Signs of success
Then again, there was already plenty of pre-launch publicity for the Bold to ride on, and the phone is a known quantity because of its earlier release in other countries.
Anecdotally, the launch saw some success. AT&T said lines had formed outside its stores in some markets the day the phone went on sale, and some had sold out by late morning. One store contacted by Ad Age said it saw more than the usual amount of traffic for a Tuesday, and attributed it to Election Day activity.
But much of the pent-up demand was likely created by the launch's delay. There was speculation that AT&T was taking pains to work out the smallest kinks the phone was having with its 3G network after the company took publicity hits for the ways the iPhone didn't play well with its 3G service.
For the first half of 2008, RIM had a total of 49% smartphone market share in the U.S. while Apple had 13%, according to IDC.
But the two aren't strictly competitive. The Bold is an enterprise-class phone designed for business power users, not the consumer set entranced by the multimedia richness of the iPhone. Another BlackBerry aimed at the consumer market is expected to hit Verizon's shelves this month. Called the Storm, this smartphone is arguably the first BlackBerry to compete head-on with the iPhone.