Why RIM Lost Its Crew, Its Groove

In business, complacency kills, as the competition is not only trying to innovate faster, they're ready to snatch up members of your devoted tribe.

Research in Motion has certainly seen better days. Last Thursday, the company announced its first quarterly loss in seven years. By Friday, industry analysts were writing its obituary. This past Tuesday, the release of software that lets corporate IT departments manage iPhones, Androids, and BlackBerries all but confirmed that the company expects to lose even its enterprise customers before long.

It’s almost enough to make you forget that RIM once changed the world.

When the company first introduced mobility into the digital equation, it insinuated the BlackBerry brand into millions of daily lives. That first-mover advantage won it a tribe of supporters who simply couldn’t live without their "crackberries."

What RIM didn’t recognize at the time was that its tribe was born of necessity, not affinity. Once competition entered the marketplace, it would have to work twice as hard to keep it intact.

Today, RIM’s tribe is dwindling to an ever-smaller band of users that have to buy its product and an endangered number of true believers. Among the myriad reasons why, four stand out as particularly instructive for others seeking to avoid its fate.

End Users are Smarter Than Engineers

RIM’s decisions are driven by engineers. Ousted cofounders Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie are technical geniuses who surrounded themselves with top engineering talent. It’s a management structure that served RIM well before real competition materialized. But when the iPhone and Android devices burst onto the market, it was clear that the company’s leadership lacked a true understanding of its customers. The C-Suite was focused on hardware, not the user experience.

RIM’s first foray outside the cozy confines of the enterprise underscores the point. 2008’s debut of the BlackBerry Storm was supposed to be the product launch that put RIM on general consumers’ radar screens. It did, but for all the wrong reasons. The attempt to blend the QWERTY keyboard experience with touchscreen technology was a data entry nightmare for most users. Voice interactivity left much to be desired. The navigation was confusing and cumbersome.

RIM never initiated the cultural transformation it needed to compete with the likes of Apple, Google, and others who elevate the user experience above all else. With Thorsten Heins as the new CEO, RIM has yet another technical wonk at the helm. It’s impressive that Mr. Heins holds a master’s degree in science and physics and boasts an unparalleled technology background, but those assets are unlikely to drive a badly needed philosophical shift toward the end-user’s point of view.

Complacency Kills

RIM saw its enterprise market dominance as a security blanket when it was really nothing more than the business equivalent of the Maginot Line. Just like DEC, HP, or Kodak, the company thought its hold on sustaining technologies would always provide it enough lead time to catch up should disruptive technologies threaten its market share. As a result, RIM wasn’t concerned with maintaining its first-mover advantage and pursued a strategy based on iteration, not innovation.

From one iteration of the BlackBerry to the next, there were no great revolutionary leaps that changed the way consumers and business use their smartphones. The PlayBook’s impact on the tablet market was similarly muted. While Apple and Google were steadily enhancing functionality, pioneering new capabilities, and building the universe of applications that now dominate the mobile device user experience, RIM fell back on the themes of security and dependability that were suddenly far less distinguishable—even to its business customers.

As the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices have aptly demonstrated, we’ve entered an era in which disruptive technologies can fundamentally change markets in as little as 12 months. That leaves even the most nimble of companies barely enough time to react—their best-in-class sustaining technologies notwithstanding. In today’s tech market—or any market for that matter— even the most dominant brands can’t simply piggyback on their competitors’ innovations, they have to develop their own.

Technology is Not Emotional

Consumers don’t buy from Apple because it’s innovative, they buy from Apple because it’s a religion. There is an emotional connection. The company has forged a tribal relationship with its consumers rooted in the ways its products and services enrich and empower people’s lives. That is why Apple was the first information company with the logo on the outside of the devices. Buying an Apple product is something that defines the consumer, not the brand.

RIM sells technology. Apple sells art, music, knowledge, and connectivity. The results of a recent Google Insights search illustrate the point. When studying the number of Google searches for "Apple" and "iPhone" over the last several years, we see similar volume and similar trajectories for both terms, with coinciding spikes during product launches and other high-profile periods.

Bottom line: The company itself is as popular as its leading product. When we change the terms to "BlackBerry" and "RIM" we see far more volume for the product than the company. That gap tells us consumers know BlackBerries, but don’t know who RIM is or what it stands for. It’s hard to feel any loyalty to a company you hardly know exists.

Brand loyalty is emotional, not factual. RIM never established an emotional connection between its brand and its customers. Without love, customers will always trade up for better, cheaper, cooler, or safer.

It’s all Viral

Over the last several years, the social media conversation surrounding RIM has grown increasingly hostile. Its product launches have been panned, its senior managers have been excoriated, and its brands have taken a beating. Industry analysts, everyday consumers, and even RIM’s own investors have all contributed to the chorus. All the while, RIM has stood virtually mute in the online venues its tech savvy stakeholders turn to most for information—essentially ceding control of its story to critics.

If ever there was a time for a coordinated social media blitz, Thursday’s earnings (or lack thereof) announcement was it. RIM had to know that the bad news would go viral seconds after it was reported. But at this crucial moment, the company again provided its detractors with unfettered influence over the conversation. As of this writing, Twitter sentiment on RIM is trending 62 percent negative and 38 percent positive. The tweets that are dominating the conversation include "RIM hemorrhages cash (and top execs), "my BlackBerry is worse than a Sidekick," and "you can’t call BlackBerries smartphones."

It’s almost unimaginable that a tech pioneer such as RIM has repeatedly failed to recognize social media’s power over widespread perceptions. Time and again, it has failed to engage its critics and assert greater control over the overarching narrative. Nor has it leveraged social media to forge consumer connections. The BlackBerry Facebook page boasts more than 10,000,000 likes, but because RIM treats the page like a sounding board, it hasn’t developed the sense of community that social media engagement is really all about. If it had, it could have called upon this sitting army of brand ambassadors to reverse, or at least slow the damaging narratives as they unfolded.

It Can Happen to Anyone

What’s most instructive about RIM’s fall from grace is that it can happen to any company that fails to connect with its consumers; confuses necessity with love; uses market share as an excuse for complacency; or fails to control its own narrative. Tribes of brand loyalists are always rented; they are never owned. When companies take them for granted; the stage is set for competitors to thin the herd.

There’s still a chance that RIM can bring its tribe back into the fold or build a new one in emerging markets. But unlike a decade ago, it must fight an uphill battle. Competitors now hold the brand loyalists that RIM lost. Worse yet, the Googles and the Apples of the world seem to understand that once your tribe falls apart, it’s awfully hard to put back together again.

Richard Levick, Esq. President & CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters—from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past three years on NACD Directorship’s prestigious list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom" and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs. Follow Richard Levick on Twitter @richardlevick.

[Image: Flickr user Ricardo Wang]

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