What BlackBerry's open letter reveals about its brand crisis

Nick Parker, managing partner of The Writer
Nick Parker, managing partner of The Writer

When the chips are down big brands turn to long-form writing, says Nick Parker, managing partner of The Writer.

You might have heard of Godwin’s Law – the ‘law’ invented by American lawyer Mike Godwin which says "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1". 

Well here’s Parker’s Corollary: "the further a business sinks into the quagmire, the more likely it is to write an ‘open letter’ to its customers." Usually they’re run as full-page newspaper ads (such as Tesco’s ‘horsemeat apology’ at the start of this year, or Murdoch’s splurge of ‘we are sorry’ ads a couple of years back). Occasionally it takes the form of a ‘leaked’ internal memo. (See Stephen Elop’s ‘burning platform’ email to Nokia employees in 2011.) BlackBerry has just become the latest brand to pen one.

Bold move

The open letter is a bold move, and is always fascinating reading. The plain font on bare newsprint is a clear signal. It’s saying, "OK, we’re going to tell it to you straight. All the other stuff we said before? Well, that was just glib advertising, shallow marketing, disingenuous PR. We really mean this: no distracting music, no glossy photo-shoot or cute tag-lines. Just plain words on a plain background. Trust us."

Readers who would normally flick past an ad without a second thought start close reading with the eye of a literary critic.

Sometimes, it works. Stephen Elop’s memo in 2011 went viral because it was clearly a sincere assessment of the deep trouble Nokia was in. It was full of stuff like this: "Today, I’m going to share what I’ve learned and what I have come to believe. I have learned that we are standing on a burning platform. And, we have more than one explosion – we have multiple points of scorching heat that are fuelling a blazing fire around us…" It went on for pages in a similar heart-felt vein.

Open letters in newspapers are more exposing still. Readers who would normally flick past an ad without a second thought start close reading with the eye of a literary critic. Many people picked up that Murdoch’s open letter in 2011 made careful use of the passive voice ("We are sorry for the serious wrong-doing that occurred") and didn’t actually admit that we did things seriously wrong. Ultimately this gave the whole letter a tone of shiftiness.

And people were equally quick to spot that Tesco’s first ‘we apologise’ letter, written soon after horsemeat was found in its burgers, didn’t actually mention the word ‘horse’ at all. When you commit yourself to plain speaking, even the slightest hint of evasiveness stands out a mile.

So, how does BlackBerry’s open letter fare?

In short: it fails the plain-speaking test. Lots of the components are there –  traditional plain text on plain background (tick); plenty of ‘this is no fancy rhetoric’ short sentences (tick); dashes of showing us behind-the-scenes honesty ("we have substantial cash on hand and a balance sheet that is debt free" – tick); and not-trying-to-be-everybody’s-friend humility ("…we know that Blackberry is not for everyone. That’s OK" – tick).

The real problem

But the general impression it leaves is one of not addressing the real problem. The letter spends a long time reminding us of its credentials: "best in class" security, a great message platform in BBM, or, er, "enterprise mobility management" (whatever that is). But that’s never been BlackBerry’s problem. The problem was that people just didn’t like using them very much, and the first chance they got, they switched.

I might have been ‘bonded’ to my BlackBerry out of necessity – but heck, I loved my iPhone.

The end of the letter reveals all. Having ticked all the analyst and tech boxes, BlackBerry now attempts to appeal to our emotions. It remind us that "deals have been closed and critical communications have been made via BlackBerry. And for many of you that created a bond…" ‘Bond’. The choice of word is so telling. I might have been ‘bonded’ to my BlackBerry out of necessity – but heck, I loved my iPhone. BlackBerry isn't in trouble because of its technology. It's in trouble because ‘bond’ is the best it can do.

There are tech commentators and financial analysts who will no doubt be able to take more meaningful ‘data’ from this open letter. (It’s always worth remembering that at one point in its history Apple was seen to be in a similarly parlous place.) But I get the sense the tone is telling us just as much about BlackBerry: so often, bonds are for breaking.

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