Research In Motion Ltd. is facing its worst marketing nightmare: the looming threat that BlackBerry addicts could be kicking the habit.
While not all of their core customers have abandoned the smartphone entirely, the brand has been weakened by service outages, delayed product launches and heavy competition, especially from Apple. It is now fighting to keep customers even in corporate circles, where it once held such sway that it earned the nickname "CrackBerry."
For the core clients – business people – to lose faith is a massive challenge for RIM's marketing team. And it is a major focus of new chief executive officer Thorsten Heins, who took over in a leadership shakeup earlier this week. In his first conference call as chief executive officer, the German hardware specialist declared that one of his key priorities is to hire a new chief marketing officer and "focus more on consumer marketing."
RIM's ability to survive in an Apple world will depend upon its ability to turn around consumers' perceptions of the brand, in an effort to attract new users, but also to hold on to the corporate clients they already have.
Those in the investment community who follow RIM have seen this loss of faith play out at their own firms. Alkesh Shah, a networking analyst with Evercore Partners in New York, is just one. After talking to the sales team this week about RIM, one salesman came into his office to confess that he really likes his BlackBerry – but only after closing the door.
"He wasn't willing to say it out loud," said Mr. Shah, who has been following RIM since the 1990s. "They have to rebuild the wow factor with consumers so that people aren't embarrassed to have a BlackBerry."
For those in the advertising community, it's clear that the new CMO will have a lot of work to do.
"From a marketing point of view, they have a very interesting transition period to manage," said Dom Caruso, president at Leo Burnett Canada. The market is still waiting for RIM's "killer product" in the new line of smartphones, which have been delayed until later this year. Until then, RIM needs to focus on courting its core customer.
Mr. Caruso likens this period to the crisis period at Apple Inc., when Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1996.
"What they did in that transition period was not product advertising … the net effect of that 'think different' campaign was, until Apple had a new product pipeline coming together, it made you feel good about being a die-hard fan of that brand. That's what BlackBerry needs to do right now."
Recently, BlackBerry's advertising efforts have positioned it as more than just a business device, with campaigns showing its use in social situations. But in appealing to the masses it may have lost its focus on the customers who are most likely to stick with RIM for the long term.
"I don't really know what RIM stands for any more, much less what BlackBerry stands for," said Arthur Fleischmann, partner and president at Toronto advertising agency john st. "It just feels like a brand lost at sea."
"The problem with RIM is RIM still thinks marketing is advertising. With Apple, it's not the technology selling the iPod. If it was only the technology, the PlayBook would beat the iPad," said Queen's University marketing professor Ken Wong. "That's what RIM doesn't get. RIM still thinks it's machine vs. machine. It's not, and as long as they think it is, they'll continue to compare machine to machine, and they'll lose."
But messaging is not the only battle RIM needs to fight: Its devices have been lagging behind as other players enter the smartphone market and dominate with a larger number of applications, better abilities to surf the Internet, and fewer glitches, which is part of what has made RIM's tech-obsessed attitude ring false in recent months.
"Whoever RIM hires to take on the role of CMO needs to think more holistically about innovation and building value for the customer, and for the business," said Heather Fraser, a former advertising executive and now director of the Rotman School of Management's DesignWorks centre. "…The only 'loyalty' factor they have going for them now is 'well-trained thumbs.' "
Part of that equation will be re-establishing the reputation for security that initially helped build the brand. Once RIM began to see more competitors in the smartphone game, it wasn't enough to simply deliver e-mail to a mobile device. The company then focused on the fact that it could deliver reliable, impenetrable service, which was a key for its business-oriented customers. However, as other smartphone devices beefed up security, coupled with BlackBerry outages that threw its server management into doubt last year, RIM's positioning as the brand for secure smartphone usage has fallen off.
Now, with mobile devices such as phones and especially tablets acting more like traditional personal computers, serving up games and other applications and allowing users to surf the Web even more freely, Evercore's Mr. Shah believes the same concerns that arose for computer users will begin to appear on other devices: that is, viruses and malware. And that represents an opportunity for RIM.
"At this point, consumers are more excited about the cool Internet things, but in the next couple of years they're going to be interested in security again," Mr. Shah said. "…RIM is neglecting one of their biggest strengths, which is that they are built with security. I wish they would get back to marketing themselves as the Volvo of smartphones."
It's that reliability that will help it win back the kinds of business people that are currently in the closet with their BlackBerry fandom – or have abandoned it altogether. Even in the advertising world, where creativity rules and many have converted to the cult of Apple, john st.'s Mr. Fleischmann held on to his BlackBerry for years because he believed it was a useful business device.
He recently switched to an iPhone.
With files from reporter Sean Silcoff in Ottawa
RIM'S STAR FACTOR
RIM's impact with Canadian consumers is on the wane. A new survey released by Ipsos Reid on Tuesday highlights the problem. The firm has developed its first ever Ipsos Influence Index, to track the most influential brands in Canada. The top 10 include RIM competitors Apple and Google (which makes the Android operating system for smartphones) as well as other tech brands such as Facebook and Google's YouTube, but RIM does not make the list.
RIM is number 13 on the index's results, which were determined by polling 1,013 consumers across the country. They were judged on nine attributes to measure influence, including how relevant, leading-edge, and trustworthy they are.
"For a brand … to impact people in their daily lives is not an easy thing to do," Ipsos Reid president Steve Levy said. "It's not a question of how much you spend. It is to do with how frequently people touch that brand."
The top 10 most influential brands in Canada, according to the index, are:
3. President's Choice
10. Air Miles