Brand Health Check: BlackBerry

A lack of user-savvy innovation has left the brand fighting to maintain share.

Just a few years ago, no big-shot executive would have been seen dead without their BlackBerry.

While the brand still commands a corporate following, thanks to the security of its encrypted network, BlackBerry has failed to capitalise on the mainstream rush to one-handset-does-all.

Joint-chief executives of parent company Research In Motion (RIM), Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, both at the helm for almost 20 years, have publicly said that they design products with chief technology officers in mind.

In doing so, they have, arguably, overlooked the central role of marketing. Last week, an open letter from an anonymous senior executive blasted BlackBerry's strategy. It called for the chiefs to step aside, as well as the implementation of customer-focused marketing and sleeker platforms for its developers. 'Offer s**t tools and we shouldn't be surprised when we see s**t apps,' said the author.

In RIM's latest results, management admitted the year 'had gotten off to a challenging start', with the slowdown continuing. The company hopes upcoming products, including the BlackBerry 9900 - which features the full panoply of smartphone mod cons - will be the answer. Can BlackBerry lure consumers away from the iPhone?

We asked Dan Hagen, managing partner, commercial strategy at MPG Media Contacts, who has worked with Orange and Sony Ericsson, and Crispin Heath, head of digital at TeamSpirit, who helped launch BlackBerry in the UK when he worked at Finex.


DAN HAGEN, MANAGING PARTNER, COMMERCIAL STRATEGY, MPG

BlackBerry got itself off to a flier. From 2003 onwards, it ramped up users and revenues exponentially. Its business heritage gave it a firm customer base and it began gaining traction with consumers, chiefly through BlackBerry Messenger, the successor to texting when that got too slow. It has now entered the tablet market with the PlayBook, which runs Flash. So, why is it getting a beating? Share-price falls, law suits and downward sales revisions all point to a company losing its way.

I think BlackBerry has found itself in the middle ground; the business user is looking at sexier smartphones - ones that do business and pleasure in one package - and young consumers are migrating toward the open Android platform and cheaper imports such as HTC. So it is losing its installed base and failing to convince new consumers about its products. Not good.

Too many new features look like Apple catch-ups rather than true innovations. As for the Flash element, well, I'm afraid that the iPad, with its rich app store, has proven for more than a year that you don't need Flash to ship 20m units.

REMEDY

- Own some areas of innovation for core business customers - give core users a reason to stay.

- Give the people content - accelerate the growth of the app store. There is a need for developers creating great apps for BlackBerry platforms.

- Go for the next big technological advance and build it into the next-generation tablet device. Motion control, such as Kinect, looks like it is only a few years away. By being first to market, rather than second or third, RIM would have a chance to steal a march on the competition.

CRISPIN HEATH, HEAD OF DIGITAL, TEAMSPIRIT

Research In Motion's (RIM) devices have undoubtedly been the king of enterprise email for a decade, but BlackBerry has been on a slow slide to obsolescence for a long time. As people move away from email and begin to use other media to communicate, the continued reliance on that one killer app has resonance with the Flip video camera, discontinued by Cisco earlier this year.

RIM's consistent failure to provide a decent multifunction device and, in particular, its inability to provide a good browser and apps, will eventually cost it. Even PlayBook, seen as a potential saviour for the BlackBerry brand, seems to have been a rushed response to the iPad. Its size, styling and enterprise-targeted design makes it anything but 'play'ful.

Several factors will mean the BlackBerry brand slowly disappears. Services such as Apple's iMessage will kill BBM, which temporarily opened the student market for RIM. More secure Android and Apple devices will mean enterprises adopt smartphones other than the BlackBerry, and the iPad will continue its dominance in the tablet market, meaning the PlayBook will never truly take off.

REMEDY

- Stop producing so many different smartphone models and focus on creating one killer device designed for the user, not the IT department.

- Dump the trackpad and develop a better touchscreen user interface.

- Develop a browser that challenges the experience of other leading smartphone models.

- Get rid of the multiple legacy operating systems and use the QNX OS, currently on PlayBook, as a standard across all new BlackBerry smartphone models and to support Android apps like PlayBook.

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