How BlackBerry Learned to Love PR

For the launch of its Z10 smartphone, the company stopped worrying about openness

Here’s an excerpt from “The Secret of Their Success” from the March 11 issue of Marketing

For the launch of its Z10 smartphone, the company stopped worrying about openness

Kevin Michaluk was at home on a cold Sunday night in January 2012 when his cellphone rang. The founding editor of looked at the screen of his BlackBerry Bold 9900: it was 9:30 p.m. and the call was from a 519 area code. A self-proclaimed BlackBerry addict, Michaluk knew that meant Waterloo. He accepted the call. It was Thorsten Heins.

Heins had just been appointed the new CEO for Research In Motion (RIM) and was tasked with the daunting goal of saving the enterprise from becoming the tech world’s biggest ruin. His first order of business? Making a call to one of the company’s biggest fans.

“We had a little chat,” recalls Michaluk. “It was a symbolic gesture that said a lot.” The phone call was evidence of a strategic shift in the way the brand formerly known as RIM approaches its media communications. Under the previous leadership of Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, the firm’s public relations channels had been a closely guarded maze, its keepers often unwilling to talk to the press. Making a personal call—his first as CEO—to Michaluk was Heins’ way of changing that.

“Instantly, what was wrong for years he righted within a minute of taking the job,” says Michaluk, who has been navigating RIM’s PR labyrinth to get questions answered for his site since it launched in 2007. “I think they’re very in touch with the community now.”

Thorsten Heins

Six months later, on July 9, 2012, Heins started a week-long media blitz, trying to pitch a turnaround story based on the company’s long-awaited operating system, BB10. At the time, it was a hard sell. The company had just posted a $500 million operating loss for the previous quarter, laid off 5,000 people and announced yet another delay on BB10, pushing the release from late 2012 into Q1 of 2013 (it was originally announced in October 2011).

The company had undergone an executive shakeup that saw founders Lazaridis and Balsillie step down as co-chief executives. While its brand had been damaged through a series of delays (and a disappointing foray into the tablet market), it still had many loyalists, especially on its Canadian home turf. But another delay meant another disappointment for those consumers who had held onto their BlackBerrys as competitors brought advanced models to market.

The media had charted the flagging fortunes of the once-mighty Canadian tech titan in excruciating detail. A Marketing cover story in August 2011 explored strategies that could turn the company around, suggesting the maker of the BlackBerry could find salvation by recasting itself as a “scrappy challenger.”

Bruce Philp, a branding consultant and former chairman and CEO of GWP Brand Engineering, was one of those who saw this kind of BlackBerry reinvention as a possible path to revival.
“Where marketing could help a great deal would be to replace [the current] narrative with one that positions RIM as an underdog and gives them a comeback story,” he told Marketing. “They need to think about hearts and minds now, and that will prepare us to love whatever products they introduce in a few months.”

Now, a year and a half later, it appears that script might actually play out.

The entire story will only unfold in the weeks and months ahead, but it looked very promising at launch. On Feb. 6, BlackBerry announced it sold more Z10 smartphones on its first day of availability in Canada than any device in the company’s history. In the U.K., where the Z10 went on sale Jan. 30 immediately after live launch events in New York, Toronto, London, Paris, Dubai, Johannesburg, Jakarta and Delhi, the company similarly claims it had its strongest ever first week of sales for a BlackBerry smartphone.

It’s not just the BlackBerry loyalists who are excited. Reviews from the same industry watchers who circled the company like vultures only a year ago have been mostly positive. BlackBerry, it would seem, has begun the process of resurrecting itself. For the first time in recent memory, many believe it has a shot to reclaim market share and become powerful again.

Those positive reviews are the result of months of hard PR strategy and legwork needed to repair the brand: a comprehensive plan and exhaustive execution strategy to reach out and build bridges to everyone from Piers Morgan to big name technology writers; wooing blogosphere influencers and app developers alike. Determined to learn from its past mistakes, the company rallied to ensure the Z10 would meet a receptive audience ready to give the brand a second chance.

It’s 9:09 a.m., Wednesday Feb. 6. The Z10 has been available in Canada for just 24 hours. Farhan Thawar, vice-president of engineering at Xtreme Labs, a Toronto-based mobile development shop that makes apps for the likes of Bell, Air Miles and MTV, is holding the Z10 in his hand.

Dozens of engineers, many of whom had a role in creating the apps that come pre-loaded on the Z10, are standing in a circle around Thawar, who is hosting his daily “stand up” talk about the day’s mobile news. Someone shouts out that Bell announced the launch was BlackBerry’s best first day of smartphone sales. A wave of impressed nods spreads across the room.

Thawar gives his review: most major apps are available, the camera works well and the touch keyboard is the best he’s ever used. The fact that the BB10 operating system that powers the Z10 is on par with current industry standards (iOS and Android) is no surprise to Thawar; Xtreme Labs has been working closely with BlackBerry since the firm was founded in 2007 and, as one of the company’s preferred development partners, receives early prototypes so it can test apps being built for clients.

Due to a tight non-disclosure agreement, Thawar can’t say exactly when the company received the first Z10 prototype, but Xtreme Labs principal engineer Dave Protasowski and principal of product development Sina Sojoodi delivered a keynote onstage at BlackBerry Jam, one of BlackBerry’s developer conferences, in May 2012. It’s safe to assume Xtreme Labs has had access to a version of the BB10 software since at least the spring of that year.

Convincing development shops like Xtreme Labs to create BB10 apps was an essential part of laying the groundwork for a successful launch. In RIM’s heyday, apps were less vital to the mobile ecosystem, but the growth of Apple’s App Store (where there are over one million apps currently available for iOS) has reset consumers’ expectations. If BB10 launched with a poorly stocked app store, it would signal to consumers that BlackBerry was an inferior product with fewer entertainment options and less functionality. In effect, it would be a replay of the launch of BlackBerry’s PlayBook tablet.

In the months leading to the release of BB10, BlackBerry conducted an unprecedented campaign to entice developers to build apps for the platform. By the time the first consumer powered up a Z10, more than 70,000 apps were available—by all accounts a substantial offering. BlackBerry sent out early prototypes to developers and offered lucrative kickbacks to protect developers from the risk of losing their own money if they built an app that failed to deliver much income. The company committed to topping up developers’ earnings to $10,000 if it made a minimum of $1,000 U.S. on an app.

The company even created 12,000 special edition Z10 phones in cherry red for developers who committed to making BB10 apps early. “Thank you for all of the long hours, late nights and early mornings you’ve spent coding,” the company wrote to developers in a blog post. “Thank you for taking a leap of faith. And thank you for believing in BlackBerry 10.”

Similarly, RIM took the Z10 on a global road show, showing off the prototype to carriers, IT decision-makers, influential tech personalities and the media.

BlackBerry’s chief marketing officer, Frank Boulben, met personally with over 300 high-profile “brand supporters” who got a sneak peak of the Z10 and a demonstration of its new features. He and his team met with a range of influencers, including CCN talk show host Piers Morgan, actor Stephen Fry, Silicon Valley blogger Robert Scoble and The Verge editor-in-chief Josh Topolsky.

Determined to seed Z10 phones in corner offices, Boulben and the other BlackBerry executives hosted meetings with powerful CEOs and CIOs on the pre-launch tour. They also hosted preview days for members of the government—an important constituency for BlackBerry—in Ottawa and Washington. To strengthen their carrier relationships, they brought prototypes to almost 50 carriers around the world, hoping to strike new co-marketing deals.

“What we did was unprecedented in scale,” Boulben says. “We needed to start our campaign for the BlackBerry 10 by showing all those people what it is capable of.”

To read the full article, pick up the March 11 issue of Marketing. For more on BlackBerry’s marketing program surrounding the launch of the Z10, visit #BBLaunch.

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