Can BlackBerry Connect With the Future?

Source: BlackBerry
Brand Scoop
is a breakdown of prominent brands that have made headlines in this week's business news. Typically, brands make headlines for very positive or very negative reasons, which of course affects their brand integrity and value on the stock market. Before investment, there is perception.

Today's featured brand is BlackBerry (NASDAQ: BBRY  ) .

BlackBerry in trouble
If the marketplace loves stability, BlackBerry is your crazy Aunt Minnie who decorates the inside of her trailer with birdhouses and the outside with old pullout couches. There was a day when BlackBerry was smart, pretty, and popular. But, as your Aunt Minnie learned, looks don't last forever, and living in the past is a formula for abject loneliness.

BlackBerry is feeling abandoned and adrift this week as Thorsten Heins, the brand's chief executive officer since January 2012, resigned and Fairfax Financial Holdings, BlackBerry's biggest shareholder, has decided against a $4.7 billion takeover that would rescue -- at least in the short term -- the floundering former tech juggernaut. From a brand identity perspective BlackBerry is about as appealing as a thorn bush.

Unsurprisingly, following standard PR damage control protocol, the brand is shuffling around its leadership as it floats in a state of limbo thanks to a $1 billion investment from a group led by Fairfax Financial Holdings.

Follow the leader
John S. Chen, who resurrected Sybase and served as CEO until it was acquired in 2010 by SAP of Germany, will step in as acting CEO and executive chairman of BlackBerry. After the failure of the BlackBerry 10 handset to gain traction in the marketplace, both John S. Chen and the embattled company have significant work to do in regard to brand equity.

Consumers see BlackBerry's troubles less as a strategic hiccup than a fundamental flaw in its approach to innovation, competitiveness, and corporate vision. How else could BlackBerry, a brand so prevalent and irresistibly influential in our culture that the public nicknamed it "CrackBerry," lose its once seemingly unassailable dominance in this tech category? John S. Chen must address these challenges as he attempts to restore prominence to the BlackBerry brand.

The physical keyboard factor
BlackBerry's brand identity is its physical keyboard, just as the iPhone is defined by its distinguished, sleek appearance (and Steve Jobs' hatred of buttons). The physical keyboard is an anchor attribute, the component of BlackBerry's brand that instantly appears in the minds of consumers whenever they encounter the name BlackBerry and recall the days when they first accessed their company emails on the devices.

BlackBerry should own this attribute. It's inescapable. So BlackBerry must treat the physical keyboard as an asset, not a liability. BlackBerry should once again embrace the fact that it is not an iPhone or any other smartphone on the market, nor does it want to be. BlackBerry needs to trust consumer interest in the physical keyboard, or go strictly software and business services.

BlackBerry's most loyal brand fans became enamored with the product because of the physical keyboard. BlackBerry users are the type of people who like to use their fingers and thumbs. In fact, this is one of the first things a BlackBerry advocate will mention when lamenting the demise of the brand. Whenever a company is in trouble -- particularly the kind of spiritual trouble that BlackBerry is currently experiencing with respect to its scary present and murky future -- it is wise to focus on what led to success in the first place.

No, this doesn't mean burying a brand's economic prospects in the past and hoping customer loyalty will forgive an inability to change. That never happens, and shouldn't. (If it did we'd still be living in the magical glow of the Atari 2600.) But, for BlackBerry, it does mean revisiting and candidly assessing the value and long-term efficacy of the physical keyboard.

Remember to breathe
BlackBerry needs to go back to the beginning. Revisiting former success creates a spiritual center of gravity that calms corporate nerves in times of turmoil. As in love, any brand that has experienced success once is capable of experiencing it again. In the rarefied silence of reflection, peace of mind and clarity ensue.

So BlackBerry needs to take a deep breath, and then listen to its dedicated constituency before they abandon the brand entirely and never look back. Do BlackBerry customers still want the physical keyboard that, though less app-friendly, results in fewer typos than touchscreens? If yes, then there is plenty of reason for hope. If not, then perhaps the only vision left is that of a button-loathing former visionary -- in which case, BlackBerry doesn't need another CEO, but the next Steve Jobs.

Time will tell
Sadly, it may already be too late for BlackBerry. In September, Fairfax Financial Holdings priced its offer for BlackBerry at $9 a share. As of this week (November 4, specifically), BlackBerry traded for $6.85, down nearly 12%. BlackBerry is experiencing a public relations crisis because the public perceives the brand as having lost its way, perhaps never to return again. This type of negativity is difficult to turn around; the tech-savvy demographic, after all, has little tolerance for the impractical, mundane, and uncool.

BlackBerry's demise, of course, is a boon to its competitors, particularly Motorola Mobility, now owned by Google, which was recently courted by Verizon. Not only did the brand's very public, sweeping layoffs present an embarrassing potential hiring bonanza for Motorola, but BlackBerry's vulnerability has even weakened its regional hold on the Canadian tech hub of Waterloo, BlackBerry's hometown in Ontario. That's just salt in the wound for a brand that once confidently led the marketplace. Ouch.

John S. Chen will be hard pressed to devise a strategy that will capitalize on BlackBerry's remaining good will with consumers. Picking up the pieces while also leading the company into a future that evokes the brand's former glory is a formidable challenge. It's an interesting case study for all involved, but, ultimately, only time knows what's truly in store for BlackBerry. The rest of us will have to make an educated guess.

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