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Great phones, too bad about the pitch

BB10 launch marred by slow rollout stateside.

CEO Thorsten Heins unveils the BlackBerry Z10. (Photo: Steve Sands/WireImage/Getty)

CEO Thorsten Heins unveils the BlackBerry Z10. (Photo: Steve Sands/WireImage/Getty)

After more than a year of speculation, Research in Mo— uh, BlackBerry threw open the gates on its long-awaited reinvention and launched its BB10 operating system for the world to see. The new Z10 and Q10 devices have garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews, but the company’s image and marketing continue to raise doubts.

Hiring Grammy-winning singer Alicia Keys as the company’s new global creative director was buzz worthy, and the corporate renaming was a nice touch. But BlackBerry’s first-ever Super Bowl ad was met with decidedly mixed reviews. Then came the gut-punch revelation that the new phones won’t be available in the American market until March—more than a month after its debut in the U.K. and Canada—thanks to testing delays by U.S. wireless carriers.

The estimated budget of the new campaign is more than US$200 million, exceeding past marketing investments by “a long shot,” says chief marketing officer Frank Boulben. The Super Bowl ad didn’t go the usual show-and-tell route, instead offering a cheeky, visual-effects-heavy approach with the tag line, “In 30 seconds, it’s quicker to show you what it can’t do.” The ad turned some off. To crib the Advertising Age review, “Really!? You’re in a battle to the death against Apple and Samsung….And you’re going to drop millions on a 30-second spot that doesn’t offer one gee-whiz feature that would separate you from the smartphone pack?”

The bigger issue is, even if an American consumer wants the new Z10, when can he get one? It’s common for carrier testing to leave a gap between a new smartphone’s unveiling and when it hits shelves. Apple is unique in consistently having pricing and availability lined up prior to launch. “Everyone else sees these delays as standard,” says IDC Canada senior analyst Kevin Restivo. “Verizon and AT&T are notoriously stringent with their testing and quality-assurance processes.” This is also a slow sales season for carriers, which could contribute to the lack of urgency.

“The worst-case scenario is what Nokia experienced last year when it launched the Lumia 920—it couldn’t say how much it cost, who was carrying it or when it would be available,” says Forrester analyst Charles Golvin. “At least BlackBerry fell somewhere between Apple and Nokia.”

Restivo plays down the fallout of the delay, saying BlackBerry’s U.S. customer base has been patient for this long, and another eight weeks won’t make a difference. “The longer-term challenge there is to win back customers who have jumped to iOS or Android,” he says. “And that’s a very difficult task.”

BlackBerry’s best chance there may be BlackBerry Balance, a new feature that lets users switch seamlessly between secure work and personal profiles. It deftly addresses the brand’s ongoing dilemma of pleasing both IT managers and consumers. “It’s something BlackBerry needs to hammer home, because stacked up against the other devices, there’s a lot that looks and feels the same,” says Restivo. “This is something that could restoke the fires of buyers past.”