Research In Motion Ltd. 's new chief marketing officer will be under intense scrutiny as he attempts to craft a new message for a North American audience that is increasingly shunning the BlackBerry.
Frank Boulben was unveiled Tuesday as one of chief executive officer Thorsten Heins's first big hires. RIM has been without a dedicated marketing head since April, 2011; some critics say it has lacked a coherent marketing strategy for at least as long.
One of the first tasks facing Mr. Boulben, formerly a senior marketing executive with Vodafone Group and France Telecom, is to help the Waterloo, Ont.-based company figure out what the BlackBerry brand stands for. Should its marketing and advertising appeal to core business users, or to the average consumers who are fuelling the smartphone sector's explosive growth?
And Mr. Boulben will need to determine this quickly: RIM is planning a crucial release of new phones next fall, under the BlackBerry 10 name, on which the company's future is riding.
"He really does have one shot," said Matthew Kelly, a managing director with Toronto-based brand strategy consultants Level5, which has worked with RIM in the past but currently does not. "They need a big idea, a fresh idea that is their own."
RIM's former chief marketing officer, Keith Pardy, left the company in March, 2011, around the time of the troubled release of the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet computer. After his departure, then co-CEO Jim Balsillie, who has since stepped down, took on marketing responsibilities, and the company experimented with a variety of advertising messages.
Advertising for BlackBerry has varied widely, from TV commercials featuring cyclists riding lit-up bikes to a recent flash mob at an Apple Inc. store in Australia. Mr. Kelly said this tinkering with various gimmicks is the result of what he calls an "acute identity crisis" for the brand.
Mr. Kelly said that Mr. Heins must let the new chief marketing officer "do his job," but added that the company also needs solid technology to fuel a new message.
"A great campaign and a great strategy without a great product rings hollow," Mr. Kelly said.
Mr. Heins is desperately seeking to turnaround the company. Recent financial results have been disastrous: Sales, revenues and profits have all declined as Apple and devices that use Google Inc.'s Android software have stolen market share in the global smartphone space that RIM helped create with the BlackBerry.
BlackBerrys used to be the only smartphones around, and practically sold themselves, but RIM's messaging has lacked consistency as it has grappled with the new competition. "I think the range of advertising they have out there has to be pruned into one cohesive whole and very, very quickly," said Kaan Yigit, of Toronto-based analysis firm Solutions Research Group.
As Mr. Boulben – whose appointment RIM announced alongside that of a new chief operating officer, Kristian Tear – takes over the marketing department, RIM's advertising is still shifting.
Last December, when Mr. Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis were still co-CEOs, the two executives promised a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz to regain U.S. market share. Out of that, a campaign emerged asking people to "Be Bold," a slogan modelled after the popular BlackBerry Bold smartphone line.
But more recently, in Australia, RIM has been experimenting with a new slogan, "Wake Up" (which a flash mob chanted outside an Apple store) and forms the basis for a new campaign that stresses being productive.
Jeff McDowell, a former senior vice-president for business marketing at RIM, said he has noticed the messaging shift – and thinks it's a positive step for RIM.
"They took a real concerted effort at creating a persona for themselves – that 'BlackBerry people' are the ones who want to succeed in life," said Mr. McDowell, now vice-president for market development at Desire2Learn, an online learning company in Kitchener, Ont.
"You ask people if they like succeeding, and nobody's going to say no. I definitely saw it as positive. They've chosen a direction and they're going with it and I think it resonates."
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