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Why Blackberry won’t become a ‘brand for hipsters’ in its ‘street smart’ plot to recapture its former glory

Blackberry outlines a new marketing strategy that will be the cornerstone of a three-year plan to revive the smartphone business

Remember Blackberry? The company that used to be a behemoth of smartphones? It’s back with a marketing scheme to prove it isn’t just a brand for the original crackberry fans but can also be a viable alternative to Apple and Samsung within the next three years.

Proclamations like this aren’t as powerful as they might have been in 2013 when Blackberry first tried to fix its broken brand. That didn’t turn out so well – it ended up with a $1bn write down of its new phones. Now, as it prepares to trumpet the arrival of its much-anticipated KeyOne smartphone, the brand’s bosses are adamant they have the “street smarts” to ensure it doesn’t descend into an exercise in nostalgia.

Despite the KeyOne already being recognised as a love letter to Blackberry fans, the business believes it could pave the way to “tens of millions of customers”. For every classic returning feature like the Blackberry-defining keyboard, there’s an attempt to modernise such as the subtle shift in the way the staple security features are promoted from the cold and ambiguous boasts to a more clear-cut promise of safety.

“We plan to disrupt the market with a unique offering,” said Francois Mahieu, managing director EMEA for Blackberry Mobile. That’s Blackberry Mobile not Blackberry as it was previously known after it was spun out of what was left of the handset division in September. Two months later TCL agreed to carry the flickering Blackberry flame, taking on a licensing deal that sees it pick up the challenge of designing and marketing the phones.

How Blackberry is fixing its once broken brand

“Blackberry has all the advantages of a startup,” assures Mahieu, who explains why his optimism for the future is not to be confused with misplaced confidence. Having held various roles at the company since 2010, he has seen the highs and the lows of the one-time technology darling and more importantly knows what doesn’t work. A new operating system, an iPhone smartphone rival and an ill-advised Alicia Keys tie-up were among several missteps during its transitional period. Each misfire was emblematic of a business clutching at short-term fixes whereas the arrival of TCL last year represents an opportunity to be more responsive to market changes, particularly given its success at propelling a non-name brand like Alcatel into the budget phone market.

“How do you build a strategy that allows us to do that without spending a lot? We’re going to be street smart,” Mahieu says of a campaign that will attempt to straddle the business and lifestyle sensibilities of the professional consumer the brand covets.

For KeyOne, “street smart” marketing is a raft of celebrity endorsements on TV alongside aggressive retail and mobile carrier activations. Fans can only buy the phone in Selfridges (to show Blackberry is “one of the most desirable phones on the market”) up until next Friday when it will then become available at Carphone Warehouse stores nationwide, while Vodafone has already announced it will support the phone. Deals with other carriers are imminent, with Mahieu revealing that “we are working with the others”.

But having retailers and carriers on side will amount to nothing if people aren’t chatting about the brand, which is why Blackberry’s social media activity is being overhauled. Reluctant to reveal too much, Mahieu talks about using social networks to carve out a more playful side to the brand, one he believes would be the antithesis of what other manufacturers post.

“We want to emerge as player who does things differently,” he continues. “My observation on digital is that it feels a bit mechanical and boring. You feel like you’re clicking on a link and then you click on that link and you find a bit of corporate blurb. That might be ok to some brands but at Blackberry we’ve just never done anything like anyone else. Our focus on digital is to make the experience far more fun and interactive than we’ve ever done before.”

Blackberry’s mission impossible

It’s hard to see how this back to basics approach will become the cornerstone of the new Blackberry brand and yet Mahieu is adamant it will be more than the sum of its parts. “We have a clear business plan for the next three years,” he asserts. “Our ambition is to build to the mainstream very quickly; we want to be back to very significant market share in the UK and other countries. In 12 months from now, the KeyOne will not be the only phone, there will be more to come and I think based on the broad acceptance I’ve seen from retailers and carriers I would say that Blackberry will establish itself as one of the top choices.”

Mahieu’s confidence aside, the scale of the challenge in front of Blackberry was laid bare earlier this week. On the day (27 April) the KeyOne went on sale, Samsung dropped one of its most ambitious marketing stunts to date. It livestreamed a performance of Royal Blood (a two-piece band from Brighton) in 360 video to coincide with the launch of the flagship Galaxy S8 smartphone. What’s more, its share of the global market is virtually non-existent; as recently as the fourth quarter of 2016, Blackberry’s share of the global smartphone market had slumped to 0.1% at just 207,000 of its devices sold in the period. In comparison some 77 million iOS Apple devices were sold, equating to a 17.9% share of the market.

“We want to make sure that we don’t just showcase hipsters for the sake of hipsters,” retorts Mahieu in response to the state of current marketing from smartphone brands. “For us everything that we do is linked to a business usage. What you will see from our marketing campaign is Blackberry in action; it’s all about business situations, it’s all about helping you get the job done. That’s the fundamental difference from a more traditional consumer approach.”

It belies a persistence to not stray too far from what once helped ensure that one of every five smartphones sold was a Blackberry. Early promotional material for the new phone ram home the point that the KeyOne and the Blackberry brand are for the professional consumer, calling on words such as “decisive”, “driven” and “zero excuses” to assert that while it will strive to be “distinctively different”, whatever happens next will be “distinctly Blackberry”.

Whether this is the right move remains to be seen. “BlackBerry was an engineering company that became a global consumer brand by accident," opined David Parry, chief operating officer at brand consultants Saffron. "And just like Kodak or Blockbusters it became a business case for failure to innovate. The BlackBerry keyboard is an iconic design, and even today has never been beaten for email efficiency. You might say it’s so ‘normcore’ it could actually be cool in 2017. But this is a last gasp, not a new beginning – with this final release BlackBerry is exiting the phone business.”

However, Blackberry’s execs knock back any early cynicism by referring back to the initial unveil in February. Like Nokia with its new-old 3310 handset, the announcement of the Keyone scored big in terms of cosy nostalgia, lifting it to become one of the most discussed brands at Mobile World Congress and secured “millions of impressions”, according to an executive – a success that was most likely in part down to Samsung’s noticeable absence.

“Just in terms of the noise level after Barcelona it really amplified our message,” explains Mahieu. Indeed, the brand gained as much lifestyle press as it did technology and business press, he revealed. Such has been appetite for the phone that it already sold out online on the morning of its launch and while demand has been “very balanced between consumers and enterprises, it's “slightly tipping toward the former", reveals Mahieu.

“I worked on the assumption that awareness [for the brand] would be much higher among the older generation – let's say 45 plus – but the reality is from all the research we’ve done is that it is spread against a very varied spectrum,” he continues. “It doesn’t really resonate with the sub 20-year old consumers but we surprisingly have very high awareness among the 25-plus audiences. So, what it means is that we broadened the appeal and are going for a more expanded segmentation that the one we initially anticipated."

None is this more evident in the UK, which was picked over the Blackberry’s native Canada as the place to start its latest comeback. The UK has traditionally been Blalckberry’s largest market in Europe and one of its biggest in the world. Moreso, the brand felt that it was the one place where the balance between enterprise businesses and consumers was right to ensure get marketing and sales off on the right foot.

Yet the latest brand tracking data from YouGov suggests that it will take a lot to change the public’s perception of the Blackberry brand. Some measures saw a spike around the unveiling of the KeyOne at MWC in late February/early March – including consideration, quality, and value. However, not only were these rises only temporary – and in most cases fell back to where they were prior to the unveil - in many instances they merely made the scores slightly less negative.

Blackberry’s Buzz score – which measures whether someone has hear something positive or negative about the brand in the past two weeks – slumped from average score of 18.4 at the start of 2011 to -2.3 now. It is a similar story when it comes to people’s impression of the brand, whether they think it represents quality, and whether they would recommend it (see chart below).

“Many perceive the smartphone market to been a two-horse race between Apple and Samsung and that some brands have been declining in popularity in the wake of this duopoly – such as LG, Sony, HTC as well as BlackBerry,” said Russell Feldman, director of digital, media and Technology research at YouGov

“However, we have started to see the emergence of some renaissance brands in recent times such as Motorola, which is carving out a new position for itself among customers and strengthening the brand’s position against the dominant players. The KeyOne might gain some traction with consumers, and it is conceivable, though not likely, that it too could start to carve out a niche audience for itself. However, a BlackBerry comeback will take more than a new handset because its problems were caused by more than one misjudged device.”

For all the optimism around the brand, there’s no denying it’s going to be an uphill task to dent the combined marketing might of Apple and Samsung.

This is an "interesting move" from Blackberry, added Michael Facemire, a principal analyst at Forrester. "With this device they’re declaring that they can still make great hardware, with unique features like their multi-functional keyboard that everyone is familiar with, and make it usual on non BBOS platforms. This isn’t a win or lose situation for them, it’s more of a play to maintain viability in a market with diminishing hardware makers. Marketing a device that runs Android and doesn’t need a battery charge for a full (or multiple) days will determine if this is a viable path forward for Blackberry."

Whether three years is enough time to have such an impact, time will tell. But Blackberry has been here before, and importantly is still standing (albeit just) after a tumultuous period that has emboldened its resolve to no longer be stuck in the past.

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