When Research In Motion Ltd.'s new CEO, Thorsten Heins, took over the company in late January, one of the first promises he made was to hire a new chief marketing officer to fix the BlackBerry-maker's mixed messaging and broken brand image.
But as the search for a high profile CMO continues, so, too, do the marketing missteps.
On Monday, RIM Australia claimed responsibility for a flash mob stunt in Sydney outside an Apple Inc. retail store. A huge bus branded with the phrase "Wake Up" pulled up outside and, filmed by a blogger, unloaded a crowd of people, dressed in black, holding up placards with the slogan, and chanting "Wake up!"
Many originally blamed Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., a massive Korean conglomerate that makes high-end touchscreen smartphones that compete directly with Apple's popular iPhone. In previous ads, some of which have gone viral, Samsung has taken aim at what it clearly sees as a herd mentality behind the massive popularity of Apple products, including the long lineups when new iPhones and iPads come out.
But Samsung, which recently surpassed Apple as the largest smartphone maker in the world on the strength of popular new devices, denied that it was responsible for the stunt. And then RIM, in a statement, confirmed that it was behind the unusual campaign, which "involves a series of experiential activities taking place across Sydney and Melbourne." RIM added that there will be a "reveal" on May 7 that aims to "provoke a conversation on what 'being in business' means to Australians."
The stunt was widely mocked in the blogosphere and online, with many saying that Samsung, at least, had phones out in the market that rivaled the iPhone, while RIM has been struggling to come out with a high-end touchscreen phone for some time.
But in that area, too, there was a bit of a misstep in strategic communications. RIM is currently running its "Be Bold" ad campaign centred around productivity, and the idea that BlackBerrys help busy people save time and be more efficient. One such ad, which was fronting RIM's main website this morning, features a music industry professional who says she receives and responds to about 1,000 e-mails a day.
"Try writing a thousand e-mails on a touchscreen," she says.
Of course, at the same time, Mr. Heins was taking to the stage in Orlando, Fla., unveiling the BlackBerry 10 prototype device that features a touchscreen keyboard. The new operating system and new set of devices form the platform that is meant to save the company.
Although reaction to Mr. Heins's brief demo of the technology at the BlackBerry World conference seemed generally positive, the move struck an odd note with die-hard BlackBerry users who love physical buttons – coming, as it did, during an ad campaign that played up a physical keyboard.
On Wednesday, Mr. Heins stressed to reporters in Orlando that RIM would not abandon physical keyboards, according to reports. (RIM already has multiple all-touch devices without keyboards, but since the release of the weak-selling BlackBerry Storm touchscreen phone, RIM has generally found more success with devices such as the Curve and Bold, which have keyboards.)
One former RIM executive said the current state of RIM's marketing is stuck awkwardly somewhere between trying to hype the coming BlackBerry products that are designed to turnaround the company's fortunes without completely destroying the market's already diminished appetite for RIM's current crop of BlackBerry smartphones.
"They're in a horrible place right now," the former executive said, expressing sympathy for the company's predicament. "It seems hard to manage those [two] messages."
The company's marketing, of course, has been in disarray for quite some time. RIM's former chief marketing officer, Keith Pardy, left the company shortly before the launch of RIM's PlayBook tablet computer last year. The former executive said that underlings of Mr. Pardy had presented various marketing concepts for the PlayBook that were "radically out of character, verging on inappropriate." One featured Tom Cruise as a powerful movie director. The ad agency 72andSunny, which helped Samsung produce ads that mocked Apple, had presented a number of marketing concepts to RIM, but none of them made it into the production process. RIM and the agency parted ways shortly afterward.
In the absence of a senior marketing executive, Jim Balsillie, then co-CEO along with Mike Lazaridis, assumed responsibility for the area. Shortly after Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Lazaridis resigned as co-CEOs, while maintaining positions on the board of directors, Mr. Balsillie stepped away from the company entirely when RIM reported dismal financial results on March 29 – a day on which Mr. Heins failed to unveil a new chief marketing officer.
On Wednesday, Mr. Heins said RIM was very close to hiring a chief marketing officer.