My brother, who is industrial-design executive in the cell phone industry, recently sent me this blog post that touched on many of the principles that I teach in my workshops and in the work I do with business owners. As is often the case, some of the best examples of strategic thinking—both the good and the bad—come to us from much larger companies.
I’ve pasted the entire blog post here with my comments in bold to help relate the lessons from RIM’s (Blackberry) missteps to the world of small business. A link to Alex Goldfayn’s original post can be found at the end.
You remember, don’t you? The emails magically appeared while you weren’t looking. That blinking light turned us into addicts. And that keyboard — copied often, but never matched. It was the BlackBerry, the glorious, beloved, and life-changing BlackBerry. It made us feel good, and it never let us down.
Today, sadly, it is buried under it, and industry insiders everywhere wonder whether RIM will survive.
What happened? Harmful strategy. Unforced errors. And, mostly, really bad marketing. On this, RIM is in good company in the consumer electronics industry, where so many manufacturers market poorly. But few have made so many marketing mistakes so quickly.
Here are seven marketing lessons from RIM’s dark and difficult journey.
1. Make Great Products
Consumer electronics success begins with excellent products. The BlackBerry was once perceived as the very best smartphone — or, at least, “emailing phone” — available. It was exciting, emotional and it made people feel good. RIM sold BlackBerries on the strength of word-of-mouth recommendations. BlackBerries were aspirational, and people wanted to own one because friends and colleagues were so passionate about them.
Now, fast-forward to today.
Consider the excitement and energy around the iPhone and all those Android handsets. RIM enjoys none of that today. Not one percent of it. In part, it’s because it stopped making good smartphones in favor of a poorly received tablet called the PlayBook.
Successful marketing begins with having a tremendous product or service to market. Nothing happens without this.
My Comments: For small businesses, distractions like that experienced by RIM, are all too prevalent and costly. Tablet-like opportunities—ones that appear new, exciting, glamorous—oftentimes appear much more interesting than executing your current strategy, which is ho-hum and boring. But if you don’t have a clear and widely understood strategy that defines what you do best, you might un-intentionally find yourself in unfamiliar territory.
2. Build on Strengths Instead of Improving on Weaknesses
I’m constantly telling clients that they should build on strengths instead of trying to improve their weak areas. For RIM, the BlackBerry was a great strength, and they all but abandoned its development and marketing for a year or longer to create the tablet. RIM did this to try to prevent the world from passing it by in the tablet space — which it did anyway. Tragically, as a result of diverting talent, attention, resources, investment and innovation from the BlackBerry to the Playbook, the consumer smartphone world has also passed RIM by.
It doesn’t matter what business you’re in. If you focus on developing weaknesses, your strengths will atrophy due to neglect. If you want to market well, identify your strengths — products, services, techniques, approaches, relationships — and exploit them relentlessly. This technique overcomes nearly all weaknesses.
My Comments: What you say? Don’t work on my weaknesses? What do I do with that list of things we uncovered in our SWOT analysis?
Of course you should work on your weaknesses, but a distinction must be made between weak areas that are a requirement to be in business (better customer service, more efficient operations, stronger leadership, better financial controls and so on) and those weak areas that are intentionally weak because their are not central to your strategy. Pick customers, markets, products and services that reinforce and strengthen what you are already great at is how you achieve high, above-average margins. For RIM, the tablet did none of this. But it was so shiny and new that it took their eye off the ball.
3. Gravity Pushes Backwards
If you’ve attained a measure of success, you must continue innovating your products, services and your marketing just to maintain your position. Because you can bet the competition is innovating aggressively, and they’ll pass you by in three seconds if you stop doing the things that brought you success. RIM not only stopped releasing new BlackBerries while focusing on its PlayBook, it basically stopped talking to its customers about them for an extended period. We’ve seen this story before with Palm and many others. Gravity pushes backwards in business. Consistent and aggressive innovation is required not only to attain success, but to maintain it.
My Comments: I love this gem of a paragraph. The message is simple: First, get crystal clear on what makes you meaningfully different (defined as that which gives you a right to charge more than your competition) and then get even better at it. Don’t stand still.
4. Know Precisely Who Your Customer Is
RIM’s management famously disagreed on who their customer was. Then co-CEO Mike Lazaridis felt the customer was the corporation. Others, probably including his counterpart Jim Balsillie, wanted to aim BlackBerry products at consumers. If you don’t know exactly who your customer is, it is impossible to market. Language, messaging, platforms, branding and public relations change completely depending on the customers you target. So identify your customers as precisely as possible, and aim all of your marketing efforts at them.
My Comments: This holds true just not for marketing, but for all your activities—including your back-office operations. A great strategy makes sure every element of your company is pulling in the same direction and is mutually reinforcing. Competitors can easily copy your marketing, but, done right, they can’t copy all the activities that make you better than anyone else.
5. Executives Set the Marketing Tone
Consider the most successful companies in consumer electronics (and two of the most successful companies in all of business): Apple and Amazon. Their chief executives set their marketing tone, and everyone follows. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch this YouTube video of Steve Jobs introducing the iPad, and listen to how everybody who followed him on stage used exactly the same words.
My Comments: For your executive team to lead and pull together, they first must have a universally held view of your strategy. That means writing it down, agreeing to it, creating a strategic plan around it and talking about it everyday. Good leadership is one of those requirements for running a business. Good leadership that drives a focused strategy becomes a competitive advantage.
6. Avoid Unforced Errors
Most marketing problems are self-made and entirely avoidable. Consider the major developments from RIM’s recent past:
- It voluntarily stopped focusing on the BlackBerry to make a product it had no experience with.
- It could not identify its customer.
- It stopped marketing to consumers, allowing competition to roar past.
- A dramatic price increase.
- An extended period with no action to placate angry consumers.
- Spinning off something called Qwikster and then spinning it back in.
- A remarkably poor response to it all by the CEO, Reed Hastings.
None of these things happened to these companies. They did it to themselves. Don’t try to outsmart yourself. Avoid unforced errors.
My Comments: I play competitive tennis. Sometimes I find myself playing against someone half my age. When I hit an easy shot into the net–an unforced error–I get mad. The errors I make need to be because of a great serve or sharply angled ground stroke because my opponent has youth on his side. The same goes for business. Business is hard enough–what with the fickle economy and all–don’t make it harder than it needs to be with self-inflicted wounds.
7. Keep Talking to Your Customers
My work with clients often involves conducting qualitative conversations with their customers to deeply understand how they feel about what the company is doing and what the company is thinking about doing. If RIM had talked to its customers like this, it would have quickly learned that they probably weren’t particularly interested in a BlackBerry tablet without built-in email, messaging or contacts!
If you’re not talking to your customers, you’re just guessing from a conference room.
My Comments: We’ve always called this marketing malpractice: creating new strategies in a conference room without talking to your customers. Seems logical, but it happens all the time.
I believe RIM has enough of a corporate and government customer base to sustain it through this most difficult period. To recover, the company must precisely identify its customer, make terrific products for it, and orient all of its marketing and messaging toward it. In the meantime, we can all learn from the mistakes that brought the BlackBerry maker to this point.
You remember the Blackberry, don’t you?
Here is the link to the full blog post: http://mashable.com/2012/02/10/marketing-lessons-rim-blackberry/
Questions or comments? Shoot me an email: email@example.com
Alex Goldfayn’s new book is called Evangelist Marketing: What Apple Amazon and Netflix Understand About Their Customers (That Your Company Probably Doesn’t). He is CEO of the Evangelist Marketing Institute, a marketing consultancy with clients that include T-Mobile, TiVo and Logitech.