Kim Kardashian has proven her marketing expertise through years of manufacturing her own grating, inescapable fame. Now, she has lent a bit of that cachet, such as it is, to a struggling Canadian brand.
"I love my BlackBerry," Ms. Kardashian said on Monday evening, while speaking in front of a tech industry crowd at the Code Mobile conference in California.
"It's my heart and soul – I love it and I'll never get rid of it," Ms. Kardashian said, before adding some backhanded compliments about the smartphone's shortcomings.
For example, Ms. Kardashian said she also keeps an iPhone which she uses for photos, insinuating that the BlackBerry camera is inferior.
She also said her main attraction to the BlackBerry is its keyboard, which allows her to respond to e-mails quickly. But she added that she has to buy her devices on eBay, since many of the newest BlackBerry models (aside from the supersized Passport) do not come with the physical keyboard. That will change when the BlackBerry Classic goes on sale soon.
BlackBerry Ltd. spokesperson Kiyomi Rutledge said in an e-mail that Ms. Kardashian is not a paid spokesperson for the company.
"We're thrilled to have loyal and passionate fans," said a statement from the company.
But does such an endorsement have any value for the embattled technology brand?
BlackBerry's new CEO John Chen has repeatedly said that the company is focusing on selling software that can work with other mobile devices, and that BlackBerry's marketing will be geared toward the business users that originally made its devices a hit.
Ms. Kardashian's relevance to that community is not immediately obvious.
But it can't hurt. Even business users pay attention to the cultural landscape around them, said Sub Nijjar, partner and president at Toronto ad agency Union, who formerly worked at Microsoft. BlackBerry has been missing from that cultural conversation, he added.
"The few BlackBerry loyalists in our office are using the Kim Kardashian endorsement as a bit of self-deprecating humour to justify their use of the BlackBerry," Mr. Nijjar said. "For a brand, it's important to be part of pop culture. Any endorsement that isn't paid for is an advantage for them."
The unpaid element is particularly important. In his 1985 book Ogilvy on Advertising, legendary ad man David Ogilvy said that he had stopped using celebrity testimonials. Consumers who see those testimonials "assume the celebrity has been bought, which is usually the case," he wrote.
The fact that Ms. Kardashian was not paid by BlackBerry, on the other hand, may give her comments more weight for consumers. Any traction is good for BlackBerry at this point. According to research firm IDC, the company's global market share is less than 1 per cent this year, and is expected to decline to 0.3 per cent by 2018.
"They're looking at corporate users, but at the end of the day, you wouldn't mind selling to the general market," said Rob Tuchman, president of New York-based firm Goviva, which counsels companies on endorsement deals in sports and entertainment. "…This is definitely a positive for them, no doubt. As crazy as it is that people look at her as a trendsetter, it would certainly help, especially with a younger crowd."
According to Ms. Rutledge, BlackBerry does not currently pay any celebrities to appear in ads or to endorse its products. The company does sponsor F1 auto racing team Mercedes AMG Petronas.
While Ms. Kardashian is mostly known as a tabloid celebrity, she has some things in common with BlackBerry's target business user. She is a magnate, in her own way.
She is the central figure of her family's reality series, which has been on television for a decade. She has raked in endorsement deals, and used her brand to sell cosmetics and clothing. In June, with developer Glu Mobile, she launched a mobile game based on a cartoon version of her life, called Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. According to SuperData Research, the game has drawn $51-million in revenue. It is not, however, available for BlackBerry devices.
A short history of BlackBerry’s celebrity shout-outs – official and unofficial
The Ghostbusters actor and everyone’s favourite party crasher reportedly refused to carry a mobile phone for years. But this month, he told the magazine Variety that he had finally given in, and chosen to carry an older model BlackBerry.
“I got it to communicate with my sons, because they will not answer a phone call, but they will answer a text,” he said.
The comedian’s recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live included an awkward plug for the new BlackBerry Passport device. Mr. Allen said that he also has an iPhone, but called the BlackBerry “kind of a nifty Canadian thing.”
The appearance had the stink of a paid endorsement about it. However, BlackBerry PR manager Kiyomi Rutledge said in an e-mail, “Tim Allen is not a paid BlackBerry spokesperson.”
Shortly after the 2008 election, the celebrity president-elect said he was fighting to keep the BlackBerry that he had used for years.
In a recent interview, retired NSA technical director Richard “Dickie” George told CNNMoney that it took “several months” and “dozens of experts” at the NSA to modify the President’s BlackBerry to make its communications more secure.
The eponymous co-founder of the Huffington Post once wrote that she is “seduced by the charms of the little Canadian wireless device.” She has carried up to four different BlackBerry devices in the past, but a few years ago she included an iPhone in her collection.
Ah, Bono, you fickle fiend. A decade ago, Steve Jobs created a special-edition iPod with the band members’ signatures on the back, and U2 made some of its music available on iTunes exclusively. Then, in 2009, BlackBerry’s parent company (then still known as Research In Motion) sponsored U2’s tour, and the band appeared in an ad campaign called “BlackBerry Loves U2.”
U2 manager Paul McGuinness explained to Bloomberg at the time that the “many millions of dollars” BlackBerry spent on airing that campaign worldwide far outstripped any budget a record company could have provided to promote the tour.
Of course, since then, U2 has run back to BlackBerry rival, Apple. But considering the negative reaction to the free – and difficult to erase – giveaway of U2’s latest album on iTunes, BlackBerry likely is not mourning the switch.
Celebrity connections have not always worked out well for BlackBerry. In January, the company said it was parting ways with the singer that it had named “global creative director” just a year earlier. It had also promoted Ms. Keys’ “Girl on Fire” tour. It was a move many said reeked of desperation, and was a bad fit for a company attempting to rekindle a connection with the business users that had long been its bread and butter.
“If the primary focus is on enterprise, then having an entertainer as spokesperson doesn’t really make sense,” telecom industry analyst Jack Gold said at the time.
The move was subject to further ridicule when the pop star was caught tweeting from an iPhone, later claiming she had been hacked.
Joaquín Guzmán Loera, a.k.a. El Chapo, a.k.a. Shorty
The head of the Sinaloa drug cartel spent more than 10 years on the lam after escaping from prison. Recently The New Yorker published a profile of the Mexican drug lord and an account of his capture.
The story revealed that El Chapo was a loyal BlackBerry user.
“Like many narcos, he was suspicious of satellite phones, because most of the companies that manufacture them are American and the devices are relatively easy for law-enforcement officials to compromise,” the article said. “But the BlackBerry is made by a Canadian company, and Mr. Guzmán felt more comfortable using one.”
However, despite BlackBerry security features that frustrated authorities, they eventually tracked his BlackBerry and one used by an associate, and found him.