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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  • CJ

    Richard has a good grasp of the situation.  RIM isn't a household name.  I search for accessories for my Blackberry and almost get bombarded with iphone stuff.  Knowledge over the internet is close to real-time.  We have come from a society that used to read newspapers and watch CBS evening news, in the US anyway, for our news and highlights of whats happening around the world.  Now revolution and uprisings can be coordinated on your phone.  WOW!  I don't always watch the news or be listening to my radio but I always and I mean always have my cell phone close to me.  Instant feeds pushed to my Blackberry as soon as they are published to the net.  I fell in love with my blackberry a few years back and feel the pressure to go iphone.   Sprint spent an awful lot of money getting it in the hopes of keeping them competitive in the United States but I feel drawn back to my BB.  Just can't let it go.  The purchase of QNX software and The Astonishing Tribe (TAT) showed that RIM realizes that they needed to change but sometimes old habits are hard to break.  So much pressure in a competitive market like cell phones can force some companies to evolve or perish.  RIM changed the world and they have that part of history to their credit.  But where do we (they) go from here?  Some advice to RIM.  Patience, make a great product and market it well.  Society is getting smarter and don't want to be treated like children so don't make commercials making them feel as such.  I don't see any information from RIM even on my Blackberry.  Don't know why RIM is quiet here in the US.  I hear they are hitting overseas really hard but I'm a fan here in Florida and just hold my BB tight.  RIM should be re-introducing themselves back into this beautiful country with over 300 million people in it.   Get the information out that RIM is still there and is working hard to get the name Research In Motion in everyday conversations.  Build on that.  Walk don't run.  The market is still in it's infancy.  Keep your head about what your doing and not just pander to business.  Yes their important to your bottom line but don't forget about the other folks who just love your products that they use in everyday life.  I use mine everyday.  Give me a reason to keep upgrading to your products.  Get the name Research In Motion (RIM) in the United States.  Make me want to buy products to incorporate them in my life.  Once their in my life I can keep buying them.  Blackberry TV would be nice.  A device that I can put my Blackberry in my car and in the event of an accident my Blackberry would immediately call for help and give precise locations and allow me to talk to rescue services.  Maybe a device that can connect to my Blackberry in the event if I fall (I'm disabled) to instantly call family to let them know or emergency services.  The incorporation of of my phone into my life is what I'm currently doing.  I am a Blackberry fan and as long as they make great products I will continue to buy them.  

  • greg beutler

     , all too true and concise a synopsis.what he left out was the product's increasing unstable functionality. I still have a BB storm ( company provided) which I need to do a battery pull daily to bring it back to it's senses, never had had to do that with my Palm 3.  I hate a product that is too busy doing 'background tasks' or whatever and not respond to the user and let me just make a phone call. While I enjoyed my earlier BB, its clear that they have been out innovated by Apple and Google. and I'm not an Apple fan-boy. I just need product that works and works reliably. I dropped my Android and got an iphone ,when I couldn't cut and paste more than a screen's worth from an incoming email, into another doc or email. Yes the iphone's 4's battery last less than a feature film due to my busy schedule, but can't say I'm looking for the next BB offering. They have faltered as others, MSFT and HP and Nokia.

  • Doug Collins

    It's incredibly hard for a company to transform its culture, practices, and behaviors once it finds the path to creating something that it can sell at a profit consistently, quarter after quarter. RIM was no exception. Some organizations with vision and a firm grasp of reality succeed in forming new incubators within their borders: entities designed to benefit from the trends killing the incumbent business. However, they seem to be the exception, not the rule. Their existence may signal to associates and investors that the leadership team has reservations about the long-term health of the core business.

  • Mark Lambert

    I disagree with a few points here...  The iPod and iPhone are what has *created* Apples current state of brand power.  Prior to them, that level of brand power simply wasnt there.  The impact of the iPhone was entirely the result of innovation and was absolutely not the result of Apple brand affinity.  At the time, the smartphone market (like the MP3 player market years early) was all promise with little delivery.  

    Microsoft and its ecosystem, Nokia, Palm and RIM were all attempting to deliver data experiences on a handset and merge the PDA with the Phone to varying degrees of success.  RIM hit an early home run by focusing entirely on the enterprise and entirely on email.   Unfortunately for RIM, MSFT viewed this as an affront and was laser focused on breaking their dominance by integrating more and more BES functionality into Exchange with each successive version (starting with the ill fated "Mobile Information Server" back in 02/03).  The BES was ponderous and complex, and was there purely to give access to Exchange, so IT actually welcomed this.  Remember... RIM came in guerrilla style via the end-user community and as a result has never actually been an IT favorite.

    On the consumer side, every player was floundering with no one realizing the potential of the space and most handset manufacturers were lost.  RIM was software plus hardware and focused entirely on the enterprise.  Palm, at the time, was also software plus hardware but was already in the process of unraveling and it was already clear that they werent going to survive the PDA to smartphone transition.  MSFT had no coherent story and was too focused on moving the Windows experience to a mobile device.  Nokia had some hits, but is a single vendor with too small of an ecosystem.

    Apple launched the perfect product at the perfect time and iterated *very* quickly with the iPhone.  A wave of consumer interest again, like with RIM years early, drove it into the enterprise.  Only this time, it wasnt executives and sales folks who needed mobile email bringing a gadget to work.  By the time the iPhone launched, the *concept* of a handheld computer was proven - its just that *no one* had gotten it right for the masses.  Apple merged PDA, phone and MP3 player (iPod) into one device that also was *clearly* best of breed.  They were then *very* fast to correct early mis-steps.  In a great irony, as the iPhone owners started forcing the device onto IT, is that Apple was able to leverage *MSFT's anti-RIM infrastructure*.  In extending Exchange *natively* to mobile devices, and operating under consent decree, MSFT could *not* freeze out 3rd parties.  They had no choice but to license Exchange Active Sync to anyone who would pay thereby providing Apple the *ultimate* trojan horse into the enterprise.

    Google, with Android, did absolutely nothing really.  From my view, the Android story is more a "shame on MSFT" than anything else.  By the time Apple made *clear* what *the* model for next generation smartphone success was, all someone had to do was copy it.  After all, Apple is monolithic and, with the iPhone, was monolithic *from the carrier down*.  I mean imagine if somehow Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, Samsung, HTC, Motorola, et al *couldnt* figure out *some way* to at least copy the darn thing?

    All someone had to do was come along, copy the iPhone (essentially), license ActiveSync from MSFT, and offer it to every handset OEM and carrier that *wasnt* Foxconn and AT&T.  Somehow, this *wasnt* MSFT.  VicG moved over from MSFT to Google and Android exploded to fill this void.

    Through all of this, RIM kept cashing checks from its cash cow.  There were many times over the years when even MSFT (with its largely disastrous mobile strategy) had RIM on the ropes.  That the shifting of the entire industry landscape, and consumer wants and needs, out from under them is managing to knock them down is really not a surprise.

    RIM is the past of enterprise handsets the way Nokia is the past of consumer handsets.  Both players had excellent products that delivered what was needed at the time, but failed the agility test over time because, in my opinion, they failed to correctly predict the impact of the consumerization trend.

  • John Tabita

    You're absolutely right about the consumer disconnect
    between the product and the brand. My wife recently was given a Blackberry work
    phone and has become very adept at using it. But if I were to talk to her about
    a company called RIM, I'm sure I'd get a blank stare. But she does know that
    Apple made my iPad and both of my son's iPod Touch.


    "Buying an Apple product is something that defines the
    consumer, not the brand." Right again, ala Simon Sinek.