Putting All Your BlackBerrys In One Basket: Branding Brilliance Or Backfire?

When RIM officially changed its name to BlackBerry, it may have been a backward-looking move.

Should Justin Bieber change his name to "Baby"? Should Robert Downey Jr. ask to be addressed in real life as "Iron Man"? In both cases, their new names would reflect their most famous work—"Baby" being Bieber’s biggest music single and Iron Man being Downey’s most popular film role.

Still, it seems silly, doesn’t it? These two gentlemen obviously have a lot more professional success ahead of them and don’t need to be strictly defined by something they’ve done in the past, no matter how popular it was.

And yet, one company is doing something very similar with its own name. Recently, Canadian corporation Research in Motion Limited (RIM, for short) took the unusual step of rebranding itself with the new corporate name of BlackBerry, its most famous product. I was asked to comment on the name change by The Canadian Press and other media outlets a week or so ago, and my opinion can be best summed up in one word: "Risky."

As I mentioned in that article, some luxury car brands already do this kind of corporate branding under one name; BMW, for example, doesn’t bother with model names when it comes to their BMW Series vehicles, because consumers are attracted to the brand, rather than a specific model.

They can get away with that, however, because people still actively want a BMW; it’s still a desirable brand. The problem with BlackBerry is that it has almost become a one-word punch line for bypassed technology, due to its failure to respond to new competition offered by iPhones and Android smartphones. In 2006, BlackBerry devices had 44% of the domestic smartphone market tied up; by September of last year, that percentage had plummeted to 8.4%. Shares of the company have followed a similar downward trajectory, from a high of $70 per to their current price of roughly $15 a share.

And the bloodletting is not over. One week after RIM announced its name change, the giant retail chain Home Depot announced it was dumping BlackBerry devices for employee usage in favor of iPhones. Not only that, but the BlackBerry Super Bowl commercial, designed to create a big splash for its new Z10 device, underwhelmed in the extreme—showing, in fact, what the device can’t do, rather than what it can.

Still, RIM’s name swap—and imminent release of a new generation of BlackBerry products—has stimulated some good news: The company’s stock price gained 15% after the rebranding—and early signs show the new device might sell well.

The question remains, however, did RIM make a huge mistake pinning its whole company to what still appears for all intents and purposes to a dying brand? Yes, it’s for certain that BlackBerry is a much more recognized name than RIM ever was—but, again, one has to recognize that it’s more of a negative association these days.

Generally companies change their names to avoid those kinds of negative associations. For example, the private security firm Blackwater changed its name to Xe after a series of scandals involved with its work on behalf of the U.S. in the Iraq War. Philip Morris, likewise, changed its name to Altria so it would no longer be pegged solely as a cigarette maker.

And sometimes companies don’t change their names when it would seem logical, so they can continue to benefit from a positive association. U.S. cable news channel MSNBC should have lost two-fifths of its name once the NBC network and Microsoft finally dissolved their 16 year-old news partnership last year. The website, after all, was immediately transformed from MSNBC.com to NBCnews.com, yet the cable channel remained branded as MSNBC. Why? Because it has created a strong and valuable identity under that brand name; why lose a positive brand association, even though the "MS" in MSNBC has taken its leave?

If the two above situations are two sides of a branding coin, then the new BlackBerry situation represents that same coin spinning on the ground—in other words, we don’t know which side it’s going to end up landing on. "Heads" might entail the new BlackBerry models selling at a fast clip and enabling the company to regain traction in the marketplace; should that be the case, the name change will be seen as a genius move. "Tails," however, could mean the Z10 doesn’t catch on with consumers—and that the company ends up "Black-Buried" by its new direction.

It could be that this was a branding gamble that the company formerly known as RIM had to take. Let’s hope that the odds are on their side—and that their rebranding brings in a lot of coin in the future.

Did BlackBerry blow it with their name change? Tell us what you think in the comments.

[Image: Flickr user Daniel Kulinski]

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4 Comments

  • Asim

    People outside North America or even Canada didnt know what "RIM" was. I think they mad a bold move in rebranding itself. But time timing of this is questionable. They should have done it when BlackBerry was the top smartphone or should have waited if BB10 sold well. 

  • Eric Wittlake

    John, good closing question. I think the answer may be in your observation a couple paragraphs up. If the new Z10 does well, it aligns them around their strength. If it fails, well, how much is really left anyways, regardless of the name? 

    My reaction to the name change is that it is a distraction, it divides their focus and the last thing they need to be spending time and money on right now is the rebranding exercise. They ARE well known, this rebrand doesn't create separation from the historical RIM, to me it just seems to be an internal distraction which they cannot afford right now. Right now they need to solve the product, which includes the associated app marketplace, before they worry about things like their name.

  • Reset Branding

    Thanks for your great comments Eric!...and you're right the money spent on the rebranding exercise could've been better spent elsewhere...but RIM carries alot of baggage and although it may have seem like a wasted exercise, time will tell whether it works or the company folds. Either way it has added some additional chatter beyond the intro of the new phones.

    Cheers!
    John

  • César Riquelme

    I think that only the "experts" have a problem with the rebranding, regular people never knew what RIM was.