BlackBerry’s Double Pivot: Brand Transformation Worthy of an Olympic Gymnast

April 26, 2021

From bars to cars

If you worked for an organisation in the first decade of this century and went out with your mates after work for happy hour, you no doubt recall the scene of everyone typing away on their BlackBerry the way teenagers now text on their iPhones.

BlackBerry had their own operating system, but it couldn’t compete in the following decade with the rise of Android and Apple iOS, never mind the meteoric rise of iPhone and Samsung hardware.

In this age of lightspeed change, being first, and even having the best product in your sector, is no longer a guarantee of long-term survival.

So what’s a brand to do?

You pivot.

And that’s what BlackBerry did; they made the unlikely pivot from being ubiquitous in bars, to being behind the scenes in cars.

Know your strengths – not just your successes

The key to a successful pivot is understanding what your core competencies are as well as your competitive advantages. BlackBerry was a very popular consumer electronics device, but had they perceived themselves only through that lens they probably would not have survived. They would have made the mistake so many brands make, which is to change incrementally rather than disrupt themselves.

BlackBerry understood that underlying their phones was an expertise in safety, security and privacy. And that everyone needs that. So they adapted their software for other companies’ products.

‘We’re now into 500 million endpoints, including 175 million cars,’ Mark proudly explains. ‘We’re in more cars today than we were ever in phones! The car you drive I’m sure has BlackBerry in it. But because it’s not visible to the consumer, people may not know that they’re using BlackBerry in their car.

‘So that’s really been our pivot. To get that safety and security software into this explosion of the Internet of Things and all these connected devices. All of the devices are only getting more and more intelligent and more and more powerful, including your car, or including all your enterprise applications. So let’s make sure we make them as safe and secure and private as possible.

Who says you can only pivot once?

No one. BlackBerry actually pivoted twice.

‘The thing that makes our story interesting,’ says Mark Wilson, BlackBerry’s CMO, ‘is that we did a double pivot. We pivoted from hardware to software. We also pivoted from consumer to enterprise. Pivoting your business is hard. It requires significant cultural change. It requires rethinking your product portfolio. There are a lot of things to consider. It is also a question of brand, which is what gets you through; a strong brand and a strong brand identity.’ 

'We pivoted from hardware to software. We also pivoted from consumer to enterprise. Pivoting your business is hard. It requires significant cultural change. It requires rethinking your product portfolio. There are a lot of things to consider. It is also a question of brand, which is what gets you through; a strong brand and a strong brand identity.'

Not throwing the baby out with the bath water

Pivoting without toppling over altogether is not without its challenges; it requires understanding your value proposition, and brand recognition and loyalty play a large part of that.

In BlackBerry’s case they had to make two important brand decisions. Whether to keep their name and visual identity, and whether consumer awareness—which had been sky high on their phones—still mattered now that they were in other companies’ products.

The new BlackBerry is kind of akin to the Intel Inside concept. But to what extent does the consumer need to know BlackBerry is inside a device or an ecosystem to drive preference or demand for their products? What role does the consumer have in this?

‘We want to make sure the car manufacturers deliver the brand experience they want. We don’t need our logo in the car,’ Mark explains. ‘Our software in cars has the highest level of safety certification. There are hundreds of millions of lines of code in a car. And we have tools that will analyse all of that code through the supply chain of all the different vendors that have made that car. It’s okay we’re not front and centre. When you get in an Aston Martin and you turn over the ignition and you hear it, that’s the brand experience of Aston Martin. We want to make sure that we enable that experience.’

As for whether to keep the name BlackBerry, Mark says, ‘You want to capitalise on where you come from. In terms of our narrative, we recognise where we come from and then we link that to where we’re going. That’s a key part of the storytelling that we do. And we do that across every communication channel.’

‘We could change the name to Strawberry. And I could say, “Hey Darren, it’s Mark Wilson. How are you doing? I’d like to talk to you about security.” And you’d probably respond, “Strawberry? I’ve never heard of you guys.” And I’d say, “We used to be BlackBerry.” And you’d say, “I remember BlackBerry. I had a BlackBerry and it was amazing.”’

As for the visual identity, Mark says they made a new logo with thinner lines and lettering, and showed it at an all-staff meeting. ‘And the employees were like, “What are you doing? We want the BlackBerry logo back.”’

Food for thought

I think BlackBerry’s story holds important lessons that all businesses would do well to learn:

  • Understand your brand essence, not just your products and services. Because there may come a time when you lose your market. But you can build on your core capabilities to create new products and services for new markets.

  • Don’t neglect brand equity. BlackBerry’s continued success has relied in large measure on the emotional connection people have to the brand.

As Mark says, ‘As long as you know what you’re about, I think that’s the anchor that branding brings’.

This blog post was inspired by our recent episode on Rebranding Branding: The Podcast, featuring special guest and CMO of BlackBerry Worldwide, Mark Wilson. If you would like to hear the interview, listen or subscribe here.

Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor

MD & Head of Strategy and Research

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