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June 14, 2012

(Lack of) style over substance

Why are struggling companies pulling such awful PR stunts?

By Cbr Rolling Blog

Today’s latest profit warning from Nokia sent its shares tumbling by 15% – a 16 year low. RIMs, for no other reason than being the ‘other’ troubled handset manufacturer, flopped by 5%.

Jessie J performs at RIMs BlackBerry Messenger Event in London
Jessie J performs at RIMs BlackBerry Messenger event in London

On May 30, when RIM CEO Thorsten Heins provided a largely negative ‘Business Update’ stating that the company would post an operating loss for its second quarter, its share price fell by 10%. Nokia’s matched it.

Sadly the two companies appear linked in the market’s mind – as in, they aren’t Apple, Google or Samsung.

Both companies have lost 70% of their share value in the past 12 months. Both companies operate proprietary operating systems for their smartphones. Both companies have struggled with a generational shift in technology, and how to best present their new products to the public and stakeholders.

Marketing has become key, and RIM and Nokia seem to have lost the plot here. Nokia’s launch of the Lumia series, its first Microsoft Windows Phone smartphone and a very sound device, was launched in the UK with a massive light and sound show featuring DJ Deadmau5 on London’s Southbank. Nothing much seemed to follow. No TV spots, No London underground ads, TV show sponsorships or even giant banners and posters. Nokia’s Head of Sales, Colin Giles, was retired shortly after. Elop has pushed out the rest of the marketing team today.

We won’t get into Steve Ballmer’s performance in marketing circles, it is already legendarily horrid. It is no coincidence that he has also sacked the head of Windows Phone.

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RIM, has again been attempting to demo its new QNX operating system, BlackBerry 10 – a derivative of its Playbook OS – a device that has flopped so badly, its estimated RIM is carrying some $1bn in stock on its books.

This morning I went to its BlackBerry 10 Jam developers conference in London. This involved the invited developers, the very people who will be helping RIM develop a BB10 app ecosystem, standing in a queue around the block until 9.45am. The keynote was due to start at 9.30am. Not a terribly good start, but at least the numbers present seem to suggest there remains interest in the company.

When said keynote did launch, it involved one of the most excruciating PR stunts I have seen in a long time – Alec Saunders, RIMs Vice President of Developer Relations and Ecosystem Development, performed a cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s ‘The Waiting’ (via video), with alternative lyrics such as ‘It’s not quite ready yet’, and ‘Android and iOS are no good for you’ (if you know the song, I’m sure you can fit these lyrics into the music without cringing too much).

I dont’ get why they feel the need to show RIM as a ‘fun and happening place’ where ‘cool people work’ or whatever B-grade Apple effect they were going for.

The RIM EMEA staff, following this absurd adjunct, proceeded to stand up and actually deliver some professional speeches highlighting the key features of the new BB10 operating system, to their credit.

There was only the occasional dose of hyperbole – BB10 is apparently for those that "don’t just dream dreams, but make dreams happen."

Well that’d be nice if there was something physical to prove that fact, not just floaty images and vague emotions. To be fair, Apple produces this kind of silly rhetoric, but atleast they have products to attach their ‘dreams’ to.

The tech demo of BB10 was acceptable, but nothing that hadn’t been seen before at previous BB10 Jams. It remains a demo of a few cool key features on an unfinished dev device. Its very hard to sell developers on a device that doesn’t exist, or that they can’t touch tangibly.

RIM also had an unfortunate incident in April, where it put on a Jessie J concert (plus other pop stars) to celebrate… BlackBerry Messenger? That event was unfortunately marred by a tragic stabbing. But while Nokia’s aforementioned Lumia launch event had a purpose, the (presumably expensive) RIM event appeared to serve little purpose other than to remind the youth that BlackBerry was cool.

Both these events seem to highlight a lack of direction in the company’s PR and marketing. To be fair, there hasn’t been anything to market for a year or so, other than the odd BlackBerry 7 handset tweak. They have only in the last month hired a new head of marketing – the post had been vacant since March 2011.

Perhaps these companies look at Apple and think that the ‘cool’ is important; that that is what is causing Apple to work. They certainly don’t seem to rate Apple’s products (another problem entirely). Perhaps they think that because Steve Jobs and Tim Cook wander around in turtle necks and khaki pants, that it becomes incredibly important to not look like a suit. That appearance is more important than substance.

Unfortunately, Apple has the substance. We endure Apple’s smug and overbearing press conferences because their devices are fantastic.

RIM and Nokia seem to forget that Apple’s executives are professionals, and behave as such – even if they are wearing a plaid shirt.

Wall Street wants to see your company behaving like a disciplined, structured enterprise. They want a suit. So do the developers – they’re the ones that are gambling on your company. Both these groups are about the only ones right now that give a damn. Most of the public has moved on, or is in the process of doing so.

I don’t want a RIM that thinks I will love it because a 16 year old version of myself can have a jam with it in the garage. You’re one step removed from putting a baseball cap on backwards and rapping in the school yard, and no one wants to see that.

The reason RIM was so dominant in the first place was because they avoided this kind of marketing methodology. The devices spoke for themselves. BlackBerry Messenger didn’t take off because a rapper endorsed it three or four years ago, it took off because it was a truly innovative technology that the youth used because it worked.

Making fun of the state of your product release cycle in song isn’t going to make me want to develop for your device. A killer device is. Get that killer device to market, then you can rap and breakdance all you want.

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