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How BlackBerry is fixing its once 'broken' brand

Chief Marketing Officer Frank Boulben is trying to re-energize the brand by focusing on the BlackBerry name, eschewing old standbys like Bold and Curve.

BlackBerry Chief Marketing Officer Frank Boulben at the BlackBerry Live keynote session this week.
Brian Bennett/CNET

ORLANDO, Fla. -- When Frank Boulben joined BlackBerry a year ago as its chief marketing officer, he found a company whose reputation with the public was in shambles.

To make matters worse, its marketing strategy was in complete disarray. Each country or region had their own version of a BlackBerry campaign, complete with different agencies and creative processes. Even within the same region, campaigns would change from quarter to quarter with little lasting effect.

"There were a lot of broken pieces," Boulben recalled during his keynote presentation at the company's BlackBerry Live conference on Tuesday.

Getting BlackBerry's house in order on the marketing and promotional end was a critical aspect to any turnaround bid. The company was introducing a new platform and wholly new products, and needed to get consumers -- millions of whom abandoned BlackBerry -- to take another look. The BlackBerry Z10 and Q10 fizzling would put a damper on BlackBerry 10 and the company's ultimate comeback.

For anyone doubting the power of marketing, just look at the juggernaut that Samsung Electronics has created with its Galaxy S brand. The company outmuscled everyone -- including Apple -- when it came to marketing spending. Samsung has since reaped the benefits with multiple hit products, including the newly released Galaxy S4 and the larger Galaxy Note line of "phablets."

Last year, Samsung spent more than $400 million on marketing in the U.S., compared with $333.4 million by Apple, according to market research firm Kantar Media. In comparison, BlackBerry barely registered as a blip, spending $41.3 million a year.

With actual new products available, BlackBerry has said it would significantly increase its marketing budget. But even if it doubled or tripled its budget this year, Apple and Samsung would still eclipse its presence.

"Sadly, however, you can still make all the right calls, and lack of brand strength will not get you very far," said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi.

Back to basics
With Apple and Samsung's shadow looming large, it has been up to Boulben to ensure that BlackBerry makes the most of its limited resources.

In a follow-up interview with CNET, Boulben blamed the the company's previous "broken" model on the previous leadership's blind focus on growth, which resulted in fragmentation.

"When you grow that fast, you put all of your attention into sustaining growth, and the fastest way to do it is distributing resources and decentralizing your marketing," he said. While that model may be effective at chasing customers for a little while, it eventually catches up to the company.

BlackBerry Chief Marketing Officer Frank Boulben. BlackBerry

In addition, Boulben criticized the company's house of brands, which he said diluted its image. The company's official name, Research in Motion, didn't have much to do with BlackBerry. Each device, meanwhile, had their own specific names, including the Bold, Curve, Torch, Tour, and the infamous Storm (whose name still elicits a grimace from long-time executives).

Boulben moved quickly and restructured the marketing division under a single, centralized unit after only three months on the job (he said a change that dramatic usually takes more than a year). In January, the company dropped the RIM name in favor of BlackBerry. Boulben told CNET that he also wouldn't be recycling the Bold or Curve product names -- despite their continued appeal -- in favor of a simpler naming system (Z10 and Q10) that emphasizes the BlackBerry name.

Boulben compared it to the naming strategy of high-end automakers (BMW, for instance, has the Z3 roadster).

The move to get behind a single BlackBerry brand represents the company's strongest and most focused marketing push in years. With larger rivals Apple and Samsung Electronics dominating the airwaves and billboards, Boulben opted to put a more concerted effort into its own name.

While BlackBerry remains popular in some regions, those tend to be markets where they are successful with low-end products. In the markets where it intends to sell its higher end BlackBerry Z10 and Q10 smartphones -- including the U.S., it still needs to rehabilitate its image.

Bringing the buzz back
This week's BlackBerry Live conference was an ideal opportunity to begin changing the perceptions of the company.

BlackBerry had a flurry of announcements, including the lower cost BlackBerry Q5, an update to the BlackBerry Z10, more app announcements, and the surprise move to open up its BlackBerry Messenger service to other mobile platforms. The message to the BlackBerry faithful: "We're back."

BlackBerry Live is in many ways a surreal bubble cut off from the real world. It's here where regular tech executives transform into rock stars, with the BlackBerry faithful mugging for photos. Outside an after-conference party hosted by AT&T in Downtown Disney's House of Blues, BlackBerry fans lined up to pose with Vivek Bhardwaj, who has had an increasingly visible role as the head of software.

Read more: Can BlackBerry move past 'solid ground' to recapture past glory?

Some of the fan reaction, the company hopes, is from a sense of renewed excitement in the company.

Michael Nowlin, a developer and enthusiast known as "BlackBerry Hank," conceded he was let down by last year's conference, when BlackBerry again delayed the launch of its BlackBerry 10 products and failed to unveil an actual phone at the show. But he said things were different this time around.

"It's night and day," said Nowlin, whose day job is with a cable set-top box manufacturing company.

Nowlin is one of the "BlackBerry Elite," a program that involved recruiting a small army of enthusiasts and developers tasked with drumming up buzz for the company through social media, message boards, and other mediums. In exchange, they get perks like airfare, hotel rooms, and access to conferences like BlackBerry Live, as well as an inside track on the company's roadmap.

Nowlin and a handful of the other elites lounged around one of the many temporary bars set up around the main stage at Universal Studios, which BlackBerry paid to close off to only its conference attendees on Wednesday night. Performing on stage was Alicia Keys and several up-and-coming musical acts, including rock band "Alabama Shakes."

Keys has played a surprisingly large role at BlackBerry since she was named "Global Creative Director" in January. Despite an early hiccup, when she tweeted from her iPhone (she claimed she was hacked), she has proven to be more than the usual pitchwoman. During her concerts, she has one segment where she holds up a BlackBerry Z10 to "call" a love interest before bursting into song. She even participated in BlackBerry Live, speaking during the keynote and moderating a panel on women in technology.

The company also has a collection of videos on its Keep Moving Web site -- part of a collaboration with director Robert Rodriguez -- that have garnered 22 million views, Boulben said, adding that they have been able measure the increase in interest and consideration in the brand.

"There has been a 108% improvement on brand preference for people who see the Keep Moving films," he said.

Mainstream awareness still elusive
BlackBerry may have the confidence of its die-hard fans, but it still has a long way to go when it comes to the general consumer.

"There's just so much blanket coverage by Apple and Samsung that it's very hard," said Soumen Ganguly, a consultant with Altman Vilandrie & Co. "So far, I haven't really seen BlackBerry cutting through all that background noise."

Ganguly has seen interest in BlackBerry first hand. He was recently in an AT&T store in Boston looking at phones when he noticed two people walk in to ask specifically about the BlackBerry Q10. He said the clerk told him that had been happening on a regular basis since the announcement.

Still, Ganguly said he doesn't believe BlackBerry has done a decent job of marketing to the non-techie crowd.

BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins, flanked by Chief Marketing Officer Frank Boulben (left) and Chief Operating Officer Kristian Tear. Roger Cheng/CNET

"They need to generate a lot more noise," he said.

The company's current position is far from the highs it experienced just a few years ago, when it sold the smartphone to own. When BlackBerry was on top, its products, such as the flagship Bold, sleek Curve, and the more consumer-focused Pearl, were highly coveted status symbols. The term "Crackberry" emerged to describe the addictive nature of its messaging devices.

But the older BlackBerry OS increasingly showed its age as Apple's iPhone and Android smartphones began to turn heads.

BlackBerry further tarnished its brand with half-baked products such as the touchscreen Storm, and then the ill-fated PlayBook tablet. Even subsequent updates of its marquee smartphones increasingly illustrated the gap between its products the newer generation of smartphones.

So when Boulben took the job a year ago, he quipped that people said that this was either the toughest job in technology, or the easiest. Given what's gone on with BlackBerry, it's easy to assume that it has nowhere to go but up. Indeed, many believe he still has his work cut out for him.

"As far as re-energizing the brand I think it will take longer," Milanesi said.

Awaiting carrier support
One way to get mainstream awareness is through the carriers, which have far richer resources when it comes to advertising.

In the U.S., however, carrier support has been mixed. While there are a handful of commercials on the air, on the radio, and on billboards and magazines, the big sellers continue to be the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4.

While BlackBerry executives maintain that they are happy with the support of the carriers, there hasn't been much of a visible push by any of the big players.

That should change in the next month. Boulben told CNET that one of the national carriers would launch a TV campaign around BlackBerry next month.

In addition, Boulben said that the carriers were marketing to the base of existing BlackBerry customers, sending direct e-mails to encourage upgrades.

"You don't see it, but it's as effective as running a TV campaign," he said.

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The carriers have been mum about sales of the BlackBerry Z10, but the keyboard-equipped Q10 may have more luck exciting the remaining BlackBerry faithful.

BlackBerry may suspect that it has a better shot going after the diehards with the Q10 and is preparing a big campaign for it, Ganguly said.

Whether it's the Z10, Q10 or even Q5, the company doesn't want any confusion about what the campaign is about.

"I want people to say, 'I am using a BlackBerry' or 'I'm using the new BlackBerry,'" Boulben said. "(The BlackBerry name is) a fantastic asset, and I wanted that asset to be front and center."