Blogs & Comment

Research In Motion's big image problem

The BlackBerry maker's brand might just be its toughest sell.

RIM’s BlackBerry Torch (Photo: Paul Sakuma/CP/AP)

For Research In Motion, the hits just keep on coming. Unfortunately, the hits are less of the sales variety and more about gut-punches to its stock price, revenues and overall reputation.

Clearly the company has had its product and operational issues, but while global sales remain strong and the company’s marketshare with younger consumers actually grew earlier this year, a huge part of RIM’s problems can be traced back to image. Namely, that the company has never really tried to take control of it.

One ex-employee has outlined some of the specifics, such as Jim Balsillie (an accountant by trade) acting as chief marketing officer, “50-something-year-old grey-beard engineers” picking out new BlackBerry colours, and ceding control of the marketing message by spending $1 for every $10 spent by carriers. Combine all that with months of “BlackBerry is toast” headlines and you’ll have many tastemakers holding their noses.

Brand consultant Bruce Philp says one big problem with RIM’s brand is that they never contemplated competition. The company had an ironclad patent on a powerful technology and the goal wasn’t to make that attractive to people but to get it distributed. “The culture of that organization, from a marketing perspective, grew up around that DNA,” said Philp. “They never grew a branding muscle and didn’t think they had to. For a long time, they had word of mouth on their side, with opinion makers in business, politics and everywhere else using their product. It virtually marketed itself.”

For a long time, the simple quality of the BlackBerry product defined its image. We all know that a great product trumps image every time. That is, until someone else comes out with a great product that also has a great image. Enter the iPhone.

That was in 2007. Tellingly, Philp wrote a blog post just three months after the iPhone launch outlining RIM’s branding problem. The most damning thing about it is that it could’ve been written today, almost four years later.

“Can you remember ever hearing this brand’s voice? Remember one thing that it has ever said to its customers and prospects, on its own behalf or theirs? … You can’t force people to see you a certain way just by advertising to them. But neither can you decide simply to not have a brand because you don’t have any serious competition and therefore don’t need one. If you have a name, if your conduct in the marketplace is observable, even through the behavior of your customers, you’re gonna get a brand. And the first time consumers find themselves in a position of real choice, it might just bite you, hard.”

Safe to say that between the continued rise of the iPhone, iPad and Google’s Android between now and then, RIM has seen more than its fair share of teeth. Sure, the company made a positive step in January, hiring 72andSunny as its agency, but advertising alone can’t save it now. Philp says the company needs to make fundamental changes in how it manages its image, something a great TV commercial alone can’t fix.

“Everything the brand does is judged by the consumer in the context of everything it’s done before,” said Philp. “This is why you can have one airline lose 10% of its market cap for breaking a guitar, but another airline can have its roofs peeling off its planes in mid-flight and barely break the front page. It’s all about narrative. Blackberry can’t undo these liabilities with one campaign. In fact, I’d say the only way forward is to have a transformation of the company very loudly championed from the top and not be outsourced.”

Some of that change may come whether RIM wants it or not. Just today, the company’s top digital marketer Brian Wallace left for Samsung after 11 years with RIM.

But image isn’t everything, right? Tell that to Stephen Jarislowsky, chairman of Jarislowsky Fraser Ltd. The Montreal-based firm is RIM’s sixth biggest investor (10.2 million shares at the end of the first quarter, worth about $361 million yesterday), and just sold over half its holdings. “[RIM] is resting on their laurels,” Jarislowsky told Bloomberg. “Steve Jobs is a better marketer than RIM.”