RIM’s biggest challenge: mindshare

Thorstein Heins

San Jose, California. Colloquially referred to as the Capital of Silicon Valley and also the venue for this year’s BlackBerry Jam Americas 2012 (formerly BlackBerry DevCon) — a convenient location, or maybe there’s symbolism here: an embattled company having a call to arms a stone’s throw away from Cupertino.

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As the event went on, I picked up on a sense of understated confidence. It wasn’t swagger. It’s the type of confidence rooted in assiduous work — derision be damned. While it’s too early to call RIM’s fate, I came away feeling optimistic.

We noted how RIM’s stock started to spike after the keynote last week. The company’s stock continued to rise up 17% soon after RIM reported an upward trend for the company’s revenue in its last quarter. Though not indicative of industry gains, it shows that RIM is still on track to fire off a shot with BlackBerry 10.

These are positive signals, but perhaps, only for #teamblackberry. The investors, the die-hards and the developers who would like to see RIM deliver them riches — RIM estimates four percent more revenue per app/per month than iOS developers, and about 40% more revenue than Android developers. But, what about everyone else?

For a brand to be deified, is it simply a case of having the best constituent parts? The best hardware. The best software. The best marketing campaigns. The best eco-system. The best earnings reports.

The iPhone 5 reveal provoked a decidedly anodyne reception from the public. Its design was said to be “evolutionary not revolutionary” and the new Maps application in iOS 6 has exploded into a full-scale clusterfuck, with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak weighing in and calling it “disappointing.” As I’m typing this, CNN is reporting on the apology statement issued by Apple CEO Tim Cook — ouch.

Shortly before the iPhone 5 was revealed, Nokia clambered to show the world its new flagship device, the Lumia 920 which trumped the iPhone 5 with NFC and a higher resolution display. The jury is still out, but it looks like the iPhone 5 could also face strong if not overpowering competition from the 920’s maligned PureView camera. Nokia Maps are better too. Probably.

Despite all of this, there continues to be overwhelming demand for the iPhone 5. Analysts call the record breaking first weekend sales “below expectations” and Forbes warns that supply shortages, unconfirmed pre-order numbers and unrealised growth in China belie true demand for Apple’s latest.

No. It’s not about the best constituent parts. So what is it about then?

In the buildup to RIM’s first quarter 2013 unveiling of BlackBerry 10 — the smartphone maker’s panacea to it’s current lineup drought and subsequent market loss / investor doubt — I keep thinking about mindshare — that intangible and yet invaluable measure of a brand’s perceived worth.

In the hearts and minds of the lion’s share of consumers, Apple has become the number one aspirational brand. It has a glow, which despite flickering in the wake of things such as the new Maps application, continues to draw consumers in. It still has plenty of positive mindshare left in the tank.

Generating positive mindshare is not formulaic. It can’t be concocted with strategy meetings, clever marketing campaigns or even industry leading products.

Table stakes and then some

But, looking good on paper is important too. For example, RIM is quick to point out its strong position in emerging markets, but the glow will eventually fade if its best efforts are no longer seen as threats in markets where the upper echelons rule.

Luckily, BlackBerry 10 looks to be shaping up to hit parity — and then some — with its competitors in terms of technological prowess. I’ve had hands-on experiences with the latest builds of the BlackBerry 10 software and development hardware. I’ve seen the potential of the BlackBerry 10 eco-system — apps, games, movies and TV shows. Even if BlackBerry 10 doesn’t launch with hundreds of thousands of apps, the platform is light years beyond legacy versions of BlackBerry OS and capable of delivering rich user experiences. Critically however for RIM, it needs to cover the basics and deliver them with flair — it still hasn’t confirmed whether or not we’ll be seeing Skype, for example.

But, as the iPhone 5 case study shows, there is more to mindshare than features. So, what will it take for RIM to defy the fate that pundits so assuredly see in the tea leaves and make people believe in the brand again?

A glow of excellence and the evangelists

Recall Apple prior to 1997. It was flatlining. Then, there was a revival when Jobs returned. What sparked that renaissance? Apple didn’t suddenly have the best eco-systems, the best financials, or even the best products. There was a shift internally. Back then you could probably sense an understated confidence. Not swagger. The type of confidence rooted in assiduous work. Amid derision, under the guidance of a punctilious leader, a rhythm slowly began to emerge…

Apple’s new product line was focused and inspired, and the small group of desperate evangelists received new fodder for their gospel. The gospel spread and Apple won back positive standing in people’s minds. That aura of excellence (reality distortion field?) increasing mindshare, eventually leading to them becoming the most valuable company in the world.

That laser focus to deliver mind-blowing, not also-ran products and services is infectious and incendiary — it ignites a passion in everyone, from the employee to the consumer who is proud to be identified with the brand and what it says about them.

Something unique

Differentiation remains key. BlackBerry has unique enterprise solutions with Balance and Mobile Fusion, but unless you’re a CIO that’s probably not that interesting. For consumers however, BlackBerry has a strong people centric approach and it’s a feature BlackBerry 10 will build upon with RIM’s Gist acquisition.

Apple had “think different.” RIM needs to build out its own identity, which — in my opinion — is rooted in the social graph, with BBM at the core. It also has to deliver it with flair.

Hmm, licensing

I believe RIM’s nebulous statements on licensing also relate to mindshare. There’s something less exclusive about licensing your platform to other smartphone makers. I understand it as a survival tactic, but it’s just doesn’t feel very confident. Imagine a world where Apple licensed iOS.

Is it too late for RIM to regain lost mindshare and tip the scales?

Driving back to the airport I overheard the following conversation between two BlackBerry Alliance Elite members: “Last year [BlackBerry DevCon] was terrible, this year was much better, they are learning fast.”

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