A Survival Plan for Blackberry

Be Bold and Different and Risk Actually Succeeding

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There'll be business school cases written about the rise and fall of BlackBerry, not to mention its latest feat of losing almost a billion dollars in three months so it could fill warehouses with stacks of unsold smartphones that looked like iPhones and Galaxies. With various potential buyers contemplating whether to take the company private or sell off the pieces, BlackBerry ran an open letter a few weeks ago to reassure its customers of its "best-in-class" value in productivity, security and social networks.

No need to wait for the book to deconstruct that last bit. It's scary dumb. The world doesn't need half the smartphones currently on the market, companies are getting linked into larger hardware and software zaibatsu, and all phones will get obliterated once Google, Samsung and Apple figure out how to turn them into glasses, wristwatches and fashionable raincoats.

For BlackBerry to survive, it has to do something bold, different and risky, and I don't think trying to carve a niche being a business-only phone will cut it. The company has threatened to do that if given the latitude once it's private, though isn't that what got it into the corner it's in? No, BlackBerry needs to invent a new approach to smartphone technology and the services that it runs, and sell it to people, not job descriptions. Bet the whole store on some wacky, huge branding idea that has at least a fleeting chance of success and, if it fails, it'll fail so brightly that those business school cases won't end with pity, but with grudging respect.

This is the moment for marketers to make the difference. Here are three brand platforms they could consider:

The Good Phone. Imagine if BlackBerry cracked the code on linking calls and texting with social causes in some ongoing, inescapable way. Users would have to designate what issues they wanted to support, and then a multilayer deal would throw off cash donations (could every text prompt one, and would customers match it?), proprietary social networks would allow for engagement on topics and meeting, and special apps would support the efforts (perhaps tools to help shoppers avoid products from factories in so-and-so countries, or skip foods with certain ingredients). It could be the Good Phone for people who care about the world, and be willing to say adios to users who don't care. I wonder if there'd be good money in enabling such real, meaningful engagement.

The Crypto Phone. What if the next BlackBerry were the smartphone that could protect your anonymity or, better yet, put you in true control of what everyone else knows about you? This is not only a hot issue now, it's going to get hotter once the Internet of Things starts tracking our every moment. ("Hello, this is your friend's refrigerator texting, and I thought you could use a frozen yogurt.") Every entity that interacts with a smartphone wants to siphon away data, and that's on top of all the info users give away willingly. Could BlackBerry figure out how to protect its users from getting tagged in Facebook or Google ads? I can imagine proprietary apps that generated faux personas and misdirected location tagging, maybe even a solution for protecting credit cards (BlackBerry Bank?). The problem would be to figure out how to deliver these benefits without getting shut down by those service providers that rely on user data. It would be cool, though.

The No Phone Phone. If telco services are going to migrate to other devices, could BlackBerry become the smartphone that didn't rely on any single piece of hardware? I wonder what it would take to reinvent the phone interface entirely, and then migrate its users across a variety of devices. After all, the very existence of phone hardware was a technical necessity borne of a certain time and place, not some pre-ordained fact of Nature, and BlackBerry kind of invented the smartphone iteration. Perhaps it's time it invented the next generation of communicating, even if that meant forsaking hardware entirely, and allowing users to talk and text from computers, glasses, smart street signs or wherever else intelligent action is getting built.

If I had to bet, I'd say that BlackBerry will eventually exit the smartphone business and focus on servers and software for businesses, perhaps as a division of some SamsungVerizonGrandTheftAuto conglomerate. Maybe its investors will make back their money, or at least avoid losing any more. But if the company's marketers could willingly blow through almost a billion dollars to bring the Z10 to market and sell it as another iPhone, you'd think it could commit to trying to do something bold and different, and actually risk success?

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is the author of "A Thousand Words: Why We Must Fight The Tyranny of Brief, Vague & Incomplete," and the president of Baskin Associates, a marketing consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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