For years, BlackBerry was in a position companies yearn for: Its customers did the marketing.
Business and government leaders who were hooked on the device and the ability it gave them to be constantly and securely in contact were BlackBerry's best advertising. After Barack Obama's election in 2008, the U.S. president told the New York Times he was "clinging" to the device to which he had become addicted. As endorsements go, it doesn't get better than that.
But it is exactly that core of passionate, devoted users that the Waterloo, Ont.-based company has neglected, marketing experts say, and that misstep helped hasten the company's decline.
In spring 2012, in the midst of a series of delays to the much anticipated BB10 operating system's launch, and during a period of intense competition, BlackBerry began its biggest appeal to the consumer market.
The company had been building on the popularity of its devices among business and government, unveiling a series of handsets geared to ordinary smartphone users. But new touchscreen phones from companies such as Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. were incredibly successful with consumers, and had a shorter product development. BlackBerry did not keep up.
The "Be Bold" campaign of spring 2012, amid a series of delays to much-anticipated (and delayed) BB10 operating system, was meant to turn the tide. It featured creative people boasting that they needed "tools, not toys." In one ad, a young woman talks about her love for the keyboard and adds, "Try writing 1,000 e-mails on a touchscreen." The problem? Less than two months after the ad's release, then-CEO Thorstein Heins announced the first BB10 would be touchscreen-only.
The lack of clarity in overall brand messaging made BlackBerry look like it was "playing whack-a-mole," said Alfred Dupuy, managing director of brand consultancy Interbrand Canada – in short, they were hitting at problems, doing marketing on a message-by-message basis, instead of co-ordinating under the bigger picture.
The disruption in the industry represented by the launch of the iPhone and other touchscreen devices did not have to tank BlackBerry, Dom Caruso, president and chief operating officer of agency Leo Burnett Canada, said. "It's a very different story from what Nokia faced or Motorola faced. Among that core BlackBerry base, you continue to have people who are passionate about that product. That wasn't true for others," he said. "There's a loyalty that they could have spoken to."
Instead, when BB10 finally did launch this January, it attempted to cultivate a creative, consumer-friendly image that put it head-to-head with giants such as Apple and Samsung.
At the launch event, the company named Alicia Keys its "global creative director," a title some companies have used to make a typical celebrity endorsement seem more substantive.
Writer Neil Gaiman and director Guillermo Del Toro were also brought on board, and all three promoted Keep Moving creative projects that showed how they used new devices. Many criticized the move as an attempt to speak to the wrong audience. "The creative-director schtick, I don't think it was credible," Mr. Caruso said.
The focus on the consumer began to erode BlackBerry's relationship with its key professional market, said one former global telecom marketing executive, who asked not to be named. "Everyone got confused," he said. "The business market is a very profitable market, because it's not as price-sensitive as the consumer market ... they didn't understand what they had."
The culmination of the transition from a business to a consumer market happened when BlackBerry stepped into the crowded, million-dollar advertising market of the SuperBowl last February. The ad was inspired by the Fantastic Four, Mr. Boulben told the Globe at the time – depicting superhero magic as the only thing its new devices could not do. Given damaging headlines about service outages and multiple delays in the launch of its new devices, it was a strange choice, and the ads that followed, showing off the device to the tune of the Tame Impala track "Elephant," were slick but rang hollow.
"Their ads are pretty, and well shot, but they just kind of echoed the category," said Sub Nijjar, a partner at Toronto advertising agency Union Creative, who once worked at Microsoft.
As news broke that the company was looking for a buyer, amid rapidly declining sales, BlackBerry took out ads in 30 newspapers around the world, printing an open letter to counter the "dramatic headlines" about the company.
"Yes, there is a lot of competition out there and we know that BlackBerry is not for everyone. That's okay," the ad stated. This was another major shift in message for the smartphone maker, which for years had been pushing the opposite message – that it could be for everyone. In appealing to a mass market, and going head-to-head with Apple and Samsung, the company had lost a good chunk of the brand identity that appealed to business professionals.
In September, Interbrand published its most recent ranking of the 100 Best Global Brands, with the likes of Apple, Google and Coca-Cola leading the list. For the first time in five years, BlackBerry was not on it.