BlackBerry: Hoping to bear fruit

Once the leader of the mobile market, BlackBerry’s failure to change with consumer demand saw it lose its dominance. Now it is back with a new strategic plan and a leadership team that believes the company can return to the top.

Over the past few years, BlackBerry’s market share has fallen dramatically. Having once been the device of choice among teenagers and executives alike, its failure to pounce on the booming smartphone market and keep up with changing consumer demands left it vulnerable to attack from the increasing dominance of Apple and Android-operated manufacturers.

The latest Kantar figures for the three months to the end of April show BlackBerry has 5.6 per cent of the UK market for smartphone sales compared to 13.8 per cent of sales a year ago. The proportion of people who would consider buying a BlackBerry fell from 38 per cent in December 2009 to 16 per cent in March 2013, YouGov says. And in a further blow, only 35 per cent of BlackBerry owners expect to stay with the manufacturer when choosing their next phone, with 24 per cent likely to opt for Apple and 9 per cent leaning towards Samsung.

The company has a mountain to climb to regain its former glories. However, it is once again a hive of activity following the launch of the long-awaited BlackBerry 10 (BB10) operating system in February and the Z10 and Q10 smartphones, which are designed to move seamlessly from task to task, while the BlackBerry Hub function collates all messages and conversations in one place.

The business has also dropped the Research in Motion holding company name and is now simply BlackBerry.

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Ahead of the relaunch, the company underwent a  management shake-up, which saw chief marketing officer Frank Boulben join the board, along with president and chief executive Thorsten Heins, chief operating officer Kristian Tear and chief legal officer Steven E Zipperstein.

“The past 12 months have been a time of radical change for the company, starting with the leadership team,” said Boulben at the Festival of Media Global 2013 in April.

“Since then we’ve completely changed the way we do business. We’ve looked at all our operating processes and engaged in a major optimisation programme, which has saved us more than $1bn.”

Two weeks after these comments, BlackBerry announced that it will launch its BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) instant messaging service on competing Apple and Android platforms for the first time this summer. Speaking to Marketing Week following this news, he says: “We want to be the leader in mobile computing at large and that means devices but it also means services.”

“It’s a bold move,” he declares. “We have a strong position with BBM today, which has 60 million users, but in the past couple of years we’ve seen other mobile messaging services [such as WhatsApp] getting more popular on BlackBerry devices. This move will allow existing BBM users to communicate with more friends through the platform – not just those on BlackBerry devices – and it will allow us to bring the BBM experience to more consumers.”

BlackBerry has also developed BBM Channels, which will allow brands and celebrities to set up dedicated pages and share information with their community within BBM, as well as sell digital goods and vouchers, both of which were announced at the annual BlackBerry Live event in Orlando last month.

“Brands will be able to engage with their audience in ways that do not exist today,” claims Boulben. “It’s an instant service so you can communicate on the spot and really tailor the communication to the needs of the end user.”

The introduction of BBM Channels together with the launch of BBM across multiple platforms establishes BlackBerry’s desire to become the leader in mobile social networking and its intention to extend its remit beyond that of a traditional mobile manufacturer.

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“In mobile social networking we are currently in the land grab phase so we need to attract as many users as quickly as possible. If you look at such services on the web, very often it is winner takes all, unless there is a clear differentiation like Facebook versus LinkedIn. But you haven’t got two Facebooks or two LinkedIns.”

The launch of BlackBerry’s make or break operating system is being supported by its biggest marketing push, backed by a 50 per cent increase in marketing spend during the first quarter this year.

American singer-songwriter Alicia Keys was named as global creative director as part of the drive as the company looks to focus on the concept of brand programming, which Boulben says is the idea of using celebrities to create content that has an affinity with both their fans and the brand.

“I’m not at all interested in endorsement,” he insists. “I don’t believe in having a celebrity on TV saying they use a product so you should too, because I don’t think that works. We’re looking at having something much more authentic.”

That is the philosophy behind the Keep Moving projects in which Keys, together with film director Robert Rodriguez and author Neil Gaiman, has been involved. Each is collaborating with fans to create new content that is being documented via a series of online videos.

Keys is creating a video featuring photos of fans from each city of her Set the World on Fire tour, which will be played during her concerts; Rodriguez has written a short film called Two Scoops, key scenes of which have been completed by fans; and Gaiman has written 12 stories in a digital book called A Calendar of Tales, which have been inspired and illustrated by fans. BlackBerry is working with Marketing Week Engage Award winner for Agency of the Year AMV BBDO on the project.

Since the work is not restricted to BlackBerry users, it exposes a whole new group of people to the brand in a non-invasive way, suggests Boulben. More than 22 million people have watched the Keep Moving project films to date, exceeding the company’s expectations.

“People who have watched those films have a much stronger brand preference for BlackBerry – about 108 per cent higher than the average potential customer,” he claims.

Keys is involved in a number of other projects as part of her role and invited other artists to submit ideas for the next phase of the Keep Moving projects at BlackBerry Live, as well as launching the BlackBerry Scholars Programme, which aims to get women into technology.

BlackBerry’s sponsorship of the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 team also goes further than simply putting logos on cars or using drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to promote the brand, says Boulben. In addition to developing an app for Formula 1 fans, BlackBerry is working on technological solutions to improve the communication between the driver in the car and the team in the pit.

“We are a performance-oriented brand and there is no better sport than Formula 1 when it comes to precision engineering and performance,” he says. “There is a nice parallel between the two brands as Mercedes wants to come back to the top too.”

Cars are going to be a big focus for BlackBerry, particularly since the company acquired the QNX CAR application platform in 2010, making the BB10 operating system already available in 55 million vehicles.

Chief executive Thorsten Heins demonstrated BlackBerry’s in-car capabilities from a BB10-connected Bentley at BlackBerry Live, conducting a video chat from the car and showcasing its ability to provide drivers with voice communication, text, email and video conferencing direct from the dashboard.

When it comes to more traditional forms of advertising, BlackBerry has taken a disruptive approach, targeting consumers on competitor platforms by creating a mobile application that shows the BB10 experience on an iPhone or Android handset, as well as developing a Google Chrome plug-in that emulates the BlackBerry Hub on desktop.

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“If you look at the customers we have on BB10 so far, 55 per cent of them are coming from [Apple’s operating system] iOS and Android, so obviously we have a large base of potential customers we can convert. How better to reach that audience than on the digital device they have with them all day? I see that as a great opportunity for us and we are going to over-index mobile marketing for that reason.”

But is it too little too late for BlackBerry to claw back some of the ground it has lost over the past few years?

The brand has been criticised for being slow off the mark when it comes to entering the smartphone market, but Boulben says timing is not important (see Q&A, below).

BlackBerry is not going after specific demographics, but consumers that are “hyper-connected multi-taskers that get things done, whether they are hyperactive teenagers, working mums or busy executives. It really transcends demographics,” says Boulben.

Teenagers have always been one of BlackBerry’s core audiences, but its delay in launching BB10 allowed Android manufacturers such as HTC and Huawei to gain traction with that group as those devices’ price of entry tends to be lower.

However, BlackBerry’s introduction of cheaper handsets such as the newly launched Q5, which comes in multiple colours, will give the manufacturer access to this demographic once more, says Boulben. 

BlackBerry is set to launch around half a dozen handsets over the next 10 months across multiple price points.

“What will differentiate us from other platforms is that, whatever the price point, you will have the exact same BB10 experience. It will have the exact same user interface, the same portfolio of applications. What will differ is the materials in the device, the quality of the screen and the camera, but the software experience and apps will be the same across all price points.”

He believes BlackBerry Hub, the keyboards, BBM and BlackBerry Balance, which allows users to manage their professional and personal life on the same device, will be where it can offer something extra.

“Consumers want a great browser, screen, camera and apps as standard. We have to make it clear to consumers that we cover that at BlackBerry now. 

“It was not the case in the past, but we acknowledged that and now it is fully covered, but in addition we have these four areas of differentiation.”

BlackBerry’s targets remain modest. Rather than vying for first or even pushing for second in the global market, Boulben says its target now is to be “the clear number three anywhere we launch BB10”.

However, he stresses that the company’s ultimate ambition is to be measured as a cross-platform mobile social network as well as a smartphone provider.

As Boulben says, it is a bold move, but if BlackBerry is to re-establish itself as a leader in the mobile market and turn around public opinion, it is a long overdue push in the right direction.

The high-profile marketing approach behind the launch of BB10 has helped get the revamped business back in front of those that might have defected, while its connection with Alicia Keys and the Mercedes Formula 1 team highlight its intention to deliver more than just good phones.

What happens over the next few months with the launch of the cross-platform BBM offering and the new Channels feature will be critical to the brand’s future, but it must keep up the momentum it has started.

CV

  • May 2012: BlackBerry, chief marketing officer
  • March 2010 – April 2012: LightSquared, executive vice-president strategy, marketing and sales
  • March 2007 – March 2010: Vodafone, global director commercial strategy
  • November 2004 – November 2007: GSMA, board member and chairman of the strategy committee
  • January 2004 – February 2007: France Telecom, executive vice-president, brand and consumer marketing, Orange Group
  • January 2003 – December 2003: Corporate Value Associates, partner and global head, TMT practice
  • September 1999 – December 2002: Vivendi Universal, chief executive, VUNet
  • September 1994 – August 1999: SFR, executive vice-president, strategy and business development
  • January 1990 – August 1994: Corporate Value Associates, consultant and manager

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