We respected BlackBerry, but we never loved it

Prem Watsa is tugging at heart strings that aren’t attached to anything, says James Cowan

(Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

James Cowan is deputy editor of Canadian Business.

Remember BlackBerry’s Super Bowl ad? The one meant to trumpet its revolutionary new phone? Neither can I. Just eight months after it aired, the commercial is gone from my memory. (I eventually looked it up; it involves a dude with elephant legs.) Compare that to Apple’s indelible advertisements—1984, Think Different, I’m a Mac—and you can see why Apple is the world’s most valuable brand and BlackBerry’s doing a salvage operation.

The man leading the mission to save BlackBerry is Prem Watsa, founder of Fairfax Financial. He’s working hard to rally investors to buy the floundering smartphone maker and take it private. Judged on its merits, his turnaround plan is too vague and its $4.7-billion price tag too high. So Watsa has added another dubious marketing decision to BlackBerry history, selling it as a national treasure. He initially joined the company’s board “to keep the company in Canada and make sure it survives and exists in Canada,” he told the Associated Press shortly after his takeover bid was made public. “It is one of Canada’s most successful companies.” But Watsa has misjudged Canadians’ sentiment toward BlackBerry.

The flaw in his strategy is revealed through the findings of the Reputation Institute, which conducts an annual survey of consumers’ feelings toward brands. Year after year, it found BlackBerry ranked highly in categories like innovation, but far lower in matters of trust, esteem and admiration. Canadians respect BlackBerry, but they don’t love it. Watsa is tugging at heartstrings that aren’t attached to anything.

Which is nobody’s fault but BlackBerry’s itself. Unlike its rivals, the firm never saw value in building an emotional relationship with its consumers, counting on its superior technology. Company founder Mike Lazaridis was baffled by the first iPhone, unsure why anyone would want a device that needed to be recharged every few hours. But what the iPhone had, in part, was Apple CEO Steve Jobs. BlackBerry’s leadership—both Lazaridis and partner Jim Balsillie, as well as current CEO Thorsten Heins—were astute engineers and businessmen, but lousy salesmen. In today’s smartphone wars, you need a good pitch as well as a good product.

That’s not to say the only answer is to install a charismatic figure like Jobs at the helm. But for a product that lives in a consumers’ pocket each day, there better be some effort to build an emotional bond. All of the companies that ran BlackBerry off the road understand this. Google’s Android has a cute robot that manages to make an operating system seem warm and fuzzy. Even Samsung, which for decades made bland consumer electronics, has recognized the need for an emotional link. Ads for its Galaxy phones mock the cult of Apple, making the corporate rivalry seem personal.

As the technological differences between phones shrink, they distinguish themselves through fashion and attitude. Analysts were dismissive of the appeal of gold-plating and colourful plastic casings on Apple’s latest round of iPhones. Yet they sold nine million in their first weekend of release.

If BlackBerry is to survive, the company needs to learn this lesson. Even a tech company that targets business users benefits from a bit of personality, as Oracle’s loved and despised Larry Ellison proves. But for Watsa to use patriotism to promote his plan is foolhardy. He’s trying to sell a product that BlackBerry never developed and can’t yet deliver.

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