How to juggle Torches – and not get burned (for Blackberry)

RIM launches the “Blackberry Torch 9800”. But is it one brand too many?

Beg to Differ has been struggling how to deal with the launch of the new Blackberry – the much ballyhooed “iPhone Killer” – from Canada’s tech brand darling Research In Motion (RIM). But after writing – and discarding – a long, page thorough (and mildly bitchy) brand strategy critique, price the Differ found the perfect lesson for RIM from watching a street performer named The Fire Guy.  Hey RIM: this guy juggles Torches, what is ed but manages not to get burned.

The Fire Guy performs on Sparks Street at the 2010 Ottawa Busker's Festival -Photo by Dennis Van Staalduinen

The Blackberry Show so far

So far the history of the RIM / Blackberry show since the first Blackberry was introduced in 1996 has been a string of skillful maneuvers, lucky breaks, great timing, and – just like any great circus act – the proven ability to draw a massive spellbound audience very quickly. And even with the massive challenge posed by iPhone and Android, much of the audience is still with them – as this poll from today’s Guardian newspaper indicates.

The classic form we all came to know and call "Blackberry"

But it’s a dangerous and fickle time. So perhaps a good time for RIM to heed the lessons of the street performer.

The Chops Lesson: nail the fundamentals

The Fire Guy says it best in his opening patter about what a teacher once told him: “Get good at one thing, and learn to do that really really well”.

Only by mastering one skill – or one brand niche – can you start to branch out into others with authority. The “one thing” RIM mastered was actually the hardest skill in consumer technology: juggling.

They managed to get three things moving simultaneously: 1) the device called “A Blackberry”: a great human-oriented design for a text device that always put the priority on on the QWERTY keyboard rather than a flashy screen; 2) the system called “Blackberry”: less sexy, but equally important, they built a rock solid back end in the form of a secure network and the server infrastructure to allow corporations and governments to manage it securely; and 3) the Blackberry brand…

And that, dear audience, is where things get really hot.

The Cred Lesson: don’t just juggle ’em. Light ’em up!

Once you hone your juggling skills, congratulations, you’re like a thousand other performers who have the same skills. Now you’ve got to find a way to package them in a fresh way. The Fire Guy takes “table stakes” skills like juggling, devil sticks, and balancing, and adds fire to really “burn in” a unique impression that he reinforces at every opportunity.

The Blackberry brand doesn’t dominate its street corner because RIM was so good at engineering (although they certainly were, are, and need to be). As a matter of fact, if they had just called the whole thing “Research In Motion” or even RIM, they would just be another technology company.

Their “Fire Guy” moment came in one word: Blackberry.

That memorable, high-character name allowed them to pull the same feat the “Apple” brand had pulled years earlier in personal computing – by standing out in a phone market dominated by the techno-geeky branding ugliness of Motorola, Nokia, and their ilk. The Blackberry name was something you could love, and it visually related to the product – which was reinforced by the Blackberry logo which hinted at both the shape of a blackberry fruit, and the thumbkeys that were a key differentiator.

By uniting the great product and the powerful brand, they created the legend of the highly addictive “crackberry” .

The Turf Lesson: protect your niche

Cool gadgets. But they're not Blackberries.

Okay, you’ve got a brilliant gimmick that’s a proven crowd-pleaser. Now it’s your job to make sure that you remain THE Fire Guy, not to become JUST ANOTHER  Fire Guy. You won’t draw a crowd if there are five guys juggling flaming torches or jumping skateboards through a flaming hoop – especially if some of them are actually better than you at certain skills.

So if others come along who are trying to “drink your milkshake“, you have three choices, 1) Diversify to become Fire Guy plus: start doing other, non fire related stuff to win crowds with other tricks; 2) Match them trick for trick – but be better: work hard on catching up and then blowing the other guys away (if you can);  3) Out-hustle them: market yourself louder, work on building your name and reputation to paint them as not-the-real-Fire Guy.

In the face of intense competition from Apple’s iPhone and more recently Android smartphones,  Blackberry has been struggling with how to protect its turf. After several years of diversifying into some devices that are cool looking –  like the cell-phone-ish Blackberry Pearl or the touch-screen Storm – but which nobody would call “a Blackberry”, RIM has moved to trying the “me-too” feature approach – with their upcoming “Blackpad” product as an example. But as the Loop Insight blog said:

“Trying to get to where Apple is puts you at least two years behind where they are going. If your goal is to get what Apple has, you’ve already lost.”

The Real Deal Lessson: be true to expectations

Finally, RIM is (kind of) learning not to do this. - from Flickr LoozrBoy

If there’s one thing Fire Guy did wrong, it was when he stuck a balloon in his nose then pulled part out of his mouth. The problem wasn’t that it was a bad trick  (the audience applauded) or that it was gross (it was). It’s just that the trick left us wondering: “why is the Fire Guy doing that?”

The blessing of a strong brand is also its curse: the expectations you set in your audience will also limit what people will accept from you in the future.
Fortunately, with more recent devices, and now with the Blackberry Torch, RIM seems to be slowly learning how to not stick new devices up its brand’s nose – so to speak.  That is, most of the recent Blackberries like Bold, Curve, and Tour, along with the 8800 series, actually look like Blackberries.

And now finally the new “marquee player” the Torch,  stays true to Blackberry traditional keyboard with a “slider” while offering touch screen options as well. And according TG Daily, the Torch is actually a really cool little device with lots of Apple-beating features.

However, that article also points out the one area where RIM is weak. Marketing, messaging, and yes, branding.

Which brings us to the big one.

The Keep-It-Simple-Stupid Lesson: you can only juggle so much

So what's a Blackberry? All of the above. The whole baffling line-up.

Great performers  and great branders know that humans have limits. Juggling two things is easy – whether objects in the hands or brands in the head. Three things requires a bit of practice, but it’s achievable for most people (even I can do that). Four is tough and begins to stretch the boundaries of most people’s skills, while five and beyond is for experts only.

In the early days, a Blackberry was a Blackberry – a concept reinforced by branding. Individual handsets didn’t get fancy names, just transparent model numbers like 7250 – which were hard to differentiate and harder to remember, but that didn’t matter. The fact that they were all “Blackberries”and part of the “Blackberry” brand family was what mattered.

But now, in addition to “Blackberry” (which is all customers should really care about) you now have 6 other high character, non-descriptive names we’re supposed to juggle in our heads if we want to make sense of your product line.  Um, which one was the “Curve” again?!?

No clear naming convention gives customers a sense of either function, form, relationship of products to each other, or how much they can expect to pay. But even worse, you’ve still got the product numbering convention operating at the same time.

So the new product actually has four identities:

  • 1) Blackberry (the one that matters),
  • 2) Torch (which is a strong name, but is fighting for brain-share with both Blackberry and all those other product names)
  • 3) 9800 (mostly meaningless to customers since there’s only one Torch so far), and
  • 4) Slider (which used to be the development name of the phone, but still lingers as a descriptor in some Blackberry marketing messaging).

The Bottom Line.

What makes the Fire Guy memorable and valuable is not the tricks he knows. It is this: only he is the Fire Guy.

RIM needs to learn that the golden goose that is / was the Blackberry brand is only valuable as long as it is totally and unapologetically Blackberry. If you split the goose, downplay the goose, or apologize that it isn’t some other goose, you can forget about golden eggs; you’ll just bleed. Your brand equity and customer attention will keep going to Apple and Google, the two biggest brand-building behemoths in the world.

I learned this lesson the hard way at Corel, when we inherited a similar “golden goose” named WordPerfect, which was still narrowly leading the PC word processor wars against Microsoft Word. But rather than stay true to the core values that made believers of WordPerfect users, we tried to make it like Microsoft Word – while also trying to make it “Corel” at the same time.

Blackberry is trying the same trick in both trying to catch up from the front and creating something new in the Torch.

It shouldn’t be a “Torch”, a “Smartphone”, or, heaven forbid, a wannabe iPhone. All of those are other-people’s battlefields.

The only street corner you want to claim on is the one you already own: it’s a BLACKBERRY.

What do you think?

8 thoughts on “How to juggle Torches – and not get burned (for Blackberry)”

    1. That’s funny James. I think I just did!

      But yes alas a book has been at the top of the “dream hopper” for a while. It would require a heck of a lot more attention and a whole lot less professional ADD on my part.

  1. And while you’re capturing the concept of branding… deliver the promise on what the brand represents… new blackberries’ keyboards have deteriorated since the curve… if you don’t deliver on the brand promise then the brand perception weakens… Good post Dennis… Cheers, Ella

    1. You’re right about that. I was a big fan of the old keyboard, and when I went shopping for a smartphone a few months ago, Blackberry fell off my list for two reasons: 1) I couldn’t keep their products straight, and got confused and angry trying to compare the bloody models online, and 2) the keyboards felt cheap and wrong – which would be the only reason for me to choose Blackberry over iPhone.

      I chose iPhone (and felt very un-Canadian for doing it).

  2. Good article.

    But sometimes competitors do ‘steal a march’ on you. Apple has shown the will and ability to do this. But trying to out-think Apple is very risky – push ahead of the curve too much and you’ll find the market isn’t mature enough. But I agree, aiming for a ‘me-too’ approach will lower brand equity for Blackberry. They need to reposition themselves and that knee-jerk reaction to push out a Blackpad or whatever will come back to bite them.

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