The Death of A Brand


The American humorist Mark Twain once had to take to task a newspaper that had prematurely reported his passing. Twain’s letter to the editor was brief and to the point: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” And while it may be a little early yet to announce the passing of the BlackBerry, the world’s original smartphone, well, it is definitely time to start paying our respects.

Things have not been going so great for the Toronto-based manufacturer. Just days after the smartphone maker agreed to accept its largest shareholder’s $4.7 billion bid to take it private, the brand reported a $1 billion lost for the most recent quarter.

“It is a painful lesson, but many companies facing similar challenges can learn from Blackberry,” states Matt Allison, CEO of TrendKite. “The takeaway is in order to be a successful company, it must have the ability to change, be flexible and re-strategize to align with the market’s needs.”
Let’s take these one at a time.

How and when should a brand change?

It’s hard to be the pioneer, the one that breaks new ground. You stumble across some red-hot new technology. You sandwich a mobile phone together with a keyboard. You get a bunch of type-A executives typing with their thumbs on elevators. You ride a tidal wave of star-spangled profits like a bucking bronco. Then you look up one day and some esoteric computer manufacturer is serving up something called the MacPhone¬–– or is it iPhone? Hrrmph!

This, of course, is when arrogance gets the best of you. When you dismiss the challenger as an upstart and continue ordering Porterhouse steaks and Dom Perignon. This is when you need to start to change. This is when you need to start designing new phones that appeal to more than bankers and bureaucrats. Of course, BlackBerry began to do just that–––just way too late.

How flexible should a brand be?

So there is a lot of advice from consultants and branding agencies that says brand must be true to itself–––authentic, we say, with hushed, reverent tones. But here’s the thing––being authentic can simply be a euphemism for being stagnant. Uninspired. The marketplace is a living, breathing thing. A brand must adapt and evolve. I remember a time when Sony Walkman cornered the market on portable music devices. Then, out of the blue, there came this esoteric computer manufacture with their MackinPod or was it iPod? (Is there a pattern here?)

How often should a brand re-strategize?

I want to say, daily? Especially in the realm of technology! A brand must never let the bean counters get the last word. If the money guys get the last word, your brand will look like something designed by a CPA for a CFO. Not pretty! Look at Hollywood these days! Why are there so many Batman and Spiderman reboots? Why are there so many mediocre formulaic action movies and rom coms? The artists don’t run the studios. That’s why! Compare the consistent quality of Pixar’s offerings. Everyone, with the rare exception, does well at the box office, internationally and at the Oscars. The difference is Pixar is run by the artists not the pragmatic. (Yes, I think Steve Jobs had something to do with Pixar. But that’s not the point.) A Pixar movie goes through constant re-evaluation and constant improvement. There is constant re-strategizing. Re-plotting. Re-shaping. And all that for a 2-hour cartoon!

How do you realign your brand without losing your way?

This is never easy. This is why the brands that do the best are helmed by men and women who are constantly dissatisfied. Restless souls make good CEOs. Restless souls have a constantly shifting core. They can’t lose their way because they never found it. They are always challenging themselves and their R&D. They are unrelentingly upping the ante. For them, the status quo is anathema.

So, how do you make sure your brand is a growing, evolving thing? By hiring brilliant, constantly dissatisfied talent. Listening to the market. And ignoring the bookkeeper. So what should BlackBerry do? Go private. Regroup. Then reach high. They just might discover the next tidal wave. You never know.