WATERLOO — Earlier this month, a select few members of Research In Motion Ltd.’s public relations team flew down to Utah, to set up shop among the celebrities attending the Sundance Film Festival.
In addition to sponsoring the premiere of a new movie starring Jennifer Hudson and produced by Alicia Keys, RIM officials were hanging out in the InStyle lounge — which was also attended by celebs like Nicole Kidman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jane Seymour — showing off features of the company’s new BlackBerry 10 handsets for some of the Hollywood crowd.
The push didn’t stop there: Hip hop icon Russell Simmons is tweeting ecstatically about his brush with BlackBerry 10, so are members of the New York Knicks and many others.
“In general, you go to hero to zero — and back — in the shortest span of time in the U.S.,” said Frank Boulben, RIM’s recently appointed chief marketing officer and the man charged with selling the Waterloo, Ont. technology company’s resurrection.
For RIM, the chance to show off its new BlackBerry 10 platform, set to launch on Wednesday, to the rich and famous, is just one part of the branding and marketing strategy currently underway at the embattled company as it looks to reintroduce itself to the smartphone world.
“The idea for the marketing for BB10 is really to put the device and the product experience in the hands of BlackBerry fans and let them be delighted by the experience and then talk about it,” Mr. Boulben said in an interview in his office in Waterloo.
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It wasn’t that long ago that RIM’s BlackBerry devices were status symbols not just among the corporate elite of Wall Street and Washington, but also among tastemakers like Lady GaGa and Kim Kardashian. on board as members of Team BlackBerry.
But over the past few years, RIM’s fortunes waned and the BlackBerry brand lost much of its lustre thanks to product delays, marketing missteps and the rapid rise of rival devices — namely Apple Inc.’s iPhone and smartphones running Google Inc.’s Android software — that offered thousands of downloadable applications and fast Web connections.
When new chief executive Thorsten Heins, took the reins at RIM last January, he said filling the company’s vacant chief marketing officer post would be key to a U.S. turnaround for the BlackBerry maker.
That’s where Frank Boulben comes in.
The U.S. market is the most volatile market
Since taking over the chief marketing officer role in May, Mr. Boulben — a wireless marketing veteran who has worked for many of Europe’s largest telecom carriers — has been busy reshaping RIM’s marketing efforts around the world with one single goal in mind: crafting the advertising and marketing strategy that will introduce BlackBerry 10 to U.S. consumers, and potential smartphone customers around the world.
“The U.S. market is the most volatile market,” Mr. Boulben said.
Before Mr. Boulben arrived at RIM, the company had faced harsh criticism for a series of perceived marketing missteps, including the television advertising campaign surrounding the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet.
RIM CEO Heins draws praise after first year, but biggest test remains
Although Thorsten Heins has earned praise from Wall Street and the technology world for steering RIM through troubled waters, only the rollout and eventual success or failure of BlackBerry 10 will define his tenure as the company’s CEO.
Of course, those missteps were amplified by comparison to the world-beating marketing campaigns run by RIM’s competitors, namely Apple.
According to Mr. Boulben, part of the reason for the fractured messaging was a lack of internal cohesion in the marketing department. Before Mr. Boulben was hired to the chief marketer post in May, RIM had been without a CMO since March 2011 and marketing was “fragmented” across the organization. Local and regional marketing was left up to individual marketing directors in those territories while other functions like digital marketing and public relations were scattered throughout the company.
“Now, all those functions are under one roof,” he said. “So anybody working in a marketing capacity at RIM is part of the marketing organization, be they in South Africa, London or Waterloo. It’s a unified team with clear processes. Now if we want to go to market for a particular value proposition, it’s one team and we have a consistent creative framework.”
Although RIM still faces a tough challenge in reaching those consumers who have turned their back on the BlackBerry in favour of rival devices, the company is already taking steps to distance itself from its recent past.
“I recall back when the two co-CEOs left, RIM was in total tatters,” said Edgar Baum, managing director for Brand Finance Canada, an organization that measures brand valuation and the value of intangible assets.
“Nobody wanted to work on developing apps for Blackberry 10, there was no real clear vision about what the BlackBerry brand stood for or what the experience for it would be. The events of the past eight months have been just fantastic on the part of BlackBerry to go and re-engage their stakeholders.”
Still, RIM will need to improve its overall business if it hopes to raise its brand value, Mr. Baum said.
“Brand is not just about the advertising campaign that you run, it’s also about how you engage with the constituents that are interested in your products or services,” Mr. Baum said. “So the fact that they have gone on this whirlwind tour of meeting app developers and the fact that they have done a bunch of pre-releases, you have a whole bunch of telcos willing to carry the product on launch and publicly be willing to say so: those are all things benefitting BlackBerry.”
And while Mr. Boulben has been getting his organization in order, Mr. Heins and the financial team at RIM have been busy increasing the company’s cash position — which now stands at more than US$2.9-billion — which will be used, in part, to help fund RIM’s marketing war chest in the months ahead.
RIM offered a glimpse of its more free-spending plans on Friday when the company announced that the company has purchased advertising time during the Super Bowl to run BlackBerry 10 ads.
Although Mr. Boulben offered up few details about RIM’s advertising and marketing strategy for the U.S. market, he was adamant that the company knows exactly who it is targeting with BlackBerry 10.
“We have a clear audience in mind,” he said. “Users who have three main characteristics … they are hyper-connected, they are multi-taskers and they are about getting things done.
“They are doers. Achievers.”
At the same time, Mr. Boulben said that while the needs of potential BlackBerry 10 users are similar, they don’t all fall into the same demographic categories.
“You’ve got busy executives,” he said. “It could be a working mom, juggling between work and life balance, or my 18-year-old daughter, because she has those three characteristics … fundamentally, they have the same needs, and all our communication to them may be different use cases and different features, but will be centred around the product experience.”
While Mr. Boulben doesn’t believe the launch of BlackBerry 10 amounts to a definitive “make or break” moment for the company, he believes RIM’s new platform is arriving at an opportune time for the company.
“You take any technology company changing completely their underlying platform, it’s a major transition, and we’re no exception,” Mr. Boulben said.
“We are introducing a new platform, one with good timing because the platforms that are on the market, and dominating today, are six years old.”
RIM: BB10 push set to spark new smartphone marketing battle | FP Tech Desk | Financial Post