In the Aug. 29 issue of Marketing, writer Chris Powell offered a view on where Research In Motion had gone wrong, what it had going for it and where marketing could help close the gaps. With news of Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis’ departure from the BlackBerry-maker, we present this excerpt to re-examine these issues as the company begins its search for a new CMO.
How Blackberry can stay alive and thrive in the hearts and minds of a jilted market
In the introduction to his 2006 book Perfect Pitch, author and ad executive Jon Steel recounts a 1997 meeting with Steve Jobs just before the Apple CEO became a central figure in one of the greatest comeback stories in business history.
At the time, Steel was partner and director of planning for San Francisco agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which was competing against TBWA\Chiat\Day for the Apple business.
Jobs was running late, so Steel and Jeff Goodby were forced to endure a 90-minute presentation by membersof Apple’s marketing team outlining the then-struggling company’s “key competencies” and “key learnings”—all accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation replete with charts and graphs.
When Jobs finally showed up and was informed that the ad executives had been briefed, he turned to Goodby and Steel and said “I’m sure what they told you was crap.”
He then spent five minutes outlining Apple’s business strategy, informing the two ad men he was willing to stake both the company’s future and his professional reputation on two “technologically superb” and “visually stunning” products: the iMac and the G4.
After that, he took another minute or so to outline the marketing strategy. Apple’s advertising would not only thank the company’s loyal customers for standing by it in tough times, but also convey the message that it was an iconoclastic company—one that appealed to consumers who sought to be different.
In a little over six minutes, Jobs had outlined a business strategy that would ultimately catapult Apple from a small niche player beloved mainly by tech boffins to a global powerhouse—while simultaneously allowing it to maintain the cache and allure of a “cult” brand. The humble, contrite Apple outlined by Jobs in that 1997 meeting may bear scant resemblance to the all-powerful company behind those smug “I’m a Mac. And I’m a PC” ads, yet it could serve as a starting point for a legendary comeback.
This, though, is not a story about Apple. It is a story about Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion (RIM) in which the Cupertino, Calif.-based outfit happens to form a key part of the narrative—including providing a possible blueprint for RIM’s return to former glory through a marketing reboot.
Much like Apple in the late 1990s, RIM finds itself at a crossroads. Thesauruses in newsrooms throughout North America have been getting a workout by business writers covering its recent woes, with “beleaguered,” “embattled” and “flat-footed” just some of the descriptors attached to the company.
The past six months have been especially painful for the former tech darling. It has lost significant market share (while it remains the market leader in Canada, where its devices are owned by approximately 42% of smartphone users, a recent report from IDC found that its share of the global market fell to 11.6% in the second quarter, down from 17.4% in the same period last year), laid off 2,000 people (an estimated 11% of its global workforce) and endured a steady drumbeat of criticism about everything from its lacklustre foray into the tablet market to its co-CEO leadership structure.
The consensus among analysts and investors is that the once infallible tech giant has lost its mojo, squandering what seemed like an insurmountable lead in a category it almost single-handedly created by failing to adequately assess the market.
Through a carefully calibrated marketing approach, meanwhile, Apple has managed to win the hearts and minds of the tech-savvy, gadget-hungry consumers that fuel the smartphone—and now tablet—categories.
Industry observers say that RIM’s problems are numerous, but three key failings come up most often:
• It didn’t anticipate the consumer hunger for apps. “Not having a robust app marketplace and not romancing third-party developers was definitely an oversight,” says Queens University media professor Sidneyeve Matrix.
• It was late to the party in the burgeoning tablet market. The much-hyped Blackberry PlayBook, says York University marketing professor Alan Middleton, “doesn’t move the game ahead enough.”
• It was overly reliant on the enterprise segment upon which it built its reputation at the expense of developing a robust consumercentric strategy.
Compounding all those mistakes, observers say, is the fact that RIM consistently failed to produce the kind of marketing capable of igniting consumer passion. “Apple is an engineering and marketing culture and RIM is an engineering and accounting culture, and that’s the problem,” says Middleton.
This was a recurring theme in conversations with marketing experts, with one Canadian agency executive who worked on the account stating, “I’m not sure they’ve figured out how to remove themselves from the process and be truly consumer-centric in terms of how they communicate things or what people care about. Their roots are deeply in engineering, and they take that approach to marketing.”
RIM, says Middleton, was largely content to let carriers like Rogers and Telus do much of the heavy lifting when it came to promoting its latest devices, a tactic that he feels came at the expense of establishing its own brand identity. “Just doing a better job on marketing the features of a modified Blackberry is not what you’ve got to do when you’re competing with a company like Apple,” he says.
Bruce Philp, the former chairman and CEO of GWP Brand Engineering who now operates his own marketing consultancy and blogs at BrandCowboy.blogspot.com, says that because Blackberry devices essentially sold themselves for so long, RIM failed to develop what he calls a “marketing reflex.”
Both men point to this year’s ad campaign for the PlayBook, developed by MDC-owned agency 72andSunny (which landed the account, along with BBDO
Worldwide, late last year from Leo Burnett) as a prime example of the marketing malaise that has infected RIM.
“Pathetic,” says Middleton of the PlayBook advertising. “They were very low-key Canadian about it, very sensible about what value it has and what it does
and what apps are on it. Frankly there was no sex appeal in the marketing.”
Philp, meanwhile, says the work once again exposed RIM’s engineering culture nd a distinct lack of marketing acumen.
“The first mistake was that superficially the spots had a very Apple-y feel to them: a great soundtrack and the touch-screen thing,” he says. “[For consumers] these are still cues for Apple.”1
Even more damaging, he says, was that the TV ads focused on what the PlayBook offers that the iPad doesn’t, namely multi-tasking and flash web browsing.
“The logical flaw in that is the only people in the world who are going to recognize those as superior features are people who already have an iPad,” says Philp. “There are absolutely no people saying ‘I’m going to get one of those tablets as soon as they figure out multi-tasking.’ “What they really should have done is presented an alternative vision for the tablet,” he says. “The PlayBook is not an unworthy product, it’s just different, and that’s a massive failure on their part.”
While all of the experts who spoke with Marketing said that marketing alone won’t be enough to stop RIM’s slide, all agreed that it must comprise a key part of any comeback story. And like Apple a decade ago, the consensus is that RIM’s route to redemption lies in positioning itself as the scrappy challenger brand, a fresh alternative to the rotten Apple.
“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,” says Philp.
“They need to think about hearts and minds now, and that will prepare us to love whatever products they introduce in a few months. The way to do that is to make us feel like these guys are being unfairly judged and they’re going to come out of the corner swinging.”
Meanwhile, another ad executive who worked on the RIM business says a dose of humility might be the only thing capable of saving the floundering company.
“It’s sometimes really difficult when you were the leader to become the challenger,” says the executive, who asked to remain anonymous. “There’s a certain amount of ego and pride involved, but sometimes you need to swallow your pride.”
Working in RIM’s favour, says this executive, is the fact that a thriving “challenger culture” that already perceives Apple as a big bullying corporation already exists. “People want an alternative, but the alternative has to be good. People want to vote for the little guy.”
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