It Will Take More Than Marketing to Put BlackBerry Back Together Again

Beset by Technical Difficulties and Playing Catch-up in the U.S., RIM's New Team Positions Brand as a Tool for Those Who Get Things Done

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Even a category as new as smartphones has its grandpas.

The onetime market leader, Research in Motion's BlackBerry, is on life support. While longtime customers still swear by them, the devices are now largely passed over for hip whippersnappers such as iPhone and Android.

The "Be Bold" campaign highlights actual users interested in connecting and working faster.

RIM had a rapid descent, with its commanding position in U.S. market share vanishing within just a few years.

In 2009, BlackBerry had 44% of the market for smartphone operating systems, vs. Apple's 24% and Android's 9%, according to the NPD Group. But as consumers flocked to the web browsing and apps supported by its competitors, BlackBerry's lead evaporated.

At the end of last year, Android held 52% of the U.S. market and Apple 32%. BlackBerry's share had dwindled to less than 10%

The company that invented the smartphone, mobile instant messaging, and our head-down, always-texting culture risks being irrelevant to the next generation of U.S. mobile consumers.

What happened to the CrackBerry? Serious competitors, an aggressive smartphone marketing environment, the loss of key executives, product delays and marketing missteps have all played major roles. Yet the overarching problem may be plain-old inertia. It's not unknown in technology, where in a number of areas speedy newcomers have overtaken the old guard. The stalwart Kodak is in bankruptcy, and once-scrappy favorite Nokia is struggling.

"Over the last decade, RIM ruled the smartphone space. They didn't have to worry about marketing," said independent tech analyst Jeff Kagan. "But in the last four years, the Apple iPhone and Google Android transformed the space. ... RIM never developed an understanding of the brand or of their customer. They never had to."

The company's difficulty really began with the introduction of the iPhone 3G in mid-2008, but it was the introduction and adoption of Android, and Verizon's push behind the platform in late 2009, that kicked RIM's market-share problems into high gear.

Business customers who had selected BlackBerry for its security and reliability began switching or letting employees switch to iPhones and Android devices. Just recently, for example, the federal government's chief procurement agency joined other agencies in issuing iPhones and Androids in addition to BlackBerrys.

RIM has also lost key talent, including Chief Marketing Officer Keith Pardy early last year, along with 11-year veteran Paul Kalbfleisch. (He was replaced in March by Roger Baxter, who was chief strategy officer at Publicis Groupe .) In June, top digital marketer Brian Wallace defected to Samsung.

The company has struggled with its product lineup throughout this period. BlackBerry 7, launched late last year, was reviewed merely as a good upgrade and lacking compared with the rest of the field. The BB10 release has been put off until the fall.

"It's fair to say that BlackBerry has had product challenges and marketing challenges," said analyst Sarah Rotman Epps at Forrester Research. "But they haven't had a state-of -the art product for several years. And no marketing can fix that ."

In another blow, widespread outages last fall caused a consumer and media furor, with RIM responding slowly and with little more than updates. Twitter was filled with angry customers threatening -- or promising -- to switch away. Apologies and a free apps package (but no rebate) came at the end of the three-day crisis.

Roger Baxter, VP-brand and marketing communications at RIM
Roger Baxter, VP-brand and marketing communications at RIM
IDC analyst Ramon Llamas pointed out that the apps BlackBerry is bringing out in the first half of this year, including Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies, aren't all that new. He also expressed concerns that BB10 isn't expected until the second half.

"That means the first half of the year is a golden gift, wrapped and packaged to their competition, that says, "Go out and steal market share and mind share from us,' " Mr. Llamas said.

Mr. Kagan recalled giving a speech several years ago in which he said that RIM had to change, and quickly, to keep up with the industry. At the time, the company "laughed at me," he said. "They believed they were on top and that they would continue to be. But business is a wave ... and RIM missed it."

RIM seems to have realized there is a problem, Mr. Kagan said, "but the time to act is now. ... In fact, it was probably a few months ago."

Loyal BlackBerry users still fill blogs and comment sections with soliloquies to the brand. And RIM is not about to give up. New CEO Thorsten Heins has said that marketing is a priority and that hiring a CMO is vital.

Mr. Baxter has taken the reins in the meantime, handling the "Be Bold" campaign, launched in December. It highlights BlackBerry users, including a celebrity food buyer and two young international DJs, who claim: "I'm about action, not distraction," and "We need tools, not toys."

Another "Be Bold" spot features cyclists using BlackBerry Messenger to meet up for a ride on bikes with wheels that glow. The effort was created by RIM's global agency, BBDO.

The campaign is aimed at differentiating BlackBerry, Mr. Baxter told Ad Age .

"It is a product that enables people through real-time communication to make things happen -- to do more that matters to them," Mr. Baxter said. "When we profile who the BlackBerry person is , they are typically more interested in a device and a platform that helps them get things done, and helps them connect faster and work together better."

As part of "Be Bold," the active community was encouraged to tweet their Bold 2012 resolutions. Thirty thousand people responded.

Asked if BlackBerry is preaching to the choir, Mr. Baxter said: "This is actually getting the choir to preach. Even just through testimonials and people declaring what they love about the platform and what it means in their lives."

RIM spent $126 million in measured media in the first 11 months of 2011; $74 million of that was on the PlayBook tablet, according to Kantar Media data. It spent $161 million in 2010, including $66 million on the BlackBerry Torch.

The company is performing better internationally -- it's No. 1 in the U.K and South Africa -- and has 75 million global subscribers, Mr. Baxter said. RIM does not break out U.S. numbers, though he said there is room for growth. The campaign has led to a five-point bump in consumers' purchase consideration.

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