How RIM's Missing Marketing Came Back to Bite

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Resting on one's laurels
infinity   4/5/2012 3:07:57 PM

As a former blackberry user (I've had 2 or 3), they've missed the boat on a few fronts, including marketing. That "business phone" stigma kept them off of the general consumer smartphone radar. Marketing to general consumers may have helped a bit, but RIM seems to have rested on its laurels too long software-wise while its competitors outpaced them by leaps and bounds. The blackberry app market was pitiful at best when my last blackberry broke a year or so ago. It will be difficult for blackberry to catch up to what google and Apple have been doing for several years now. 

   What RIM does do, it does extremely well, but it's missing so many features that others expect from even basic smartphones these days. Good marketing isn't enough to catch them up to the competitors.

John Barnes
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It's happened a lot more than once (before Palm there was DEC, and all the "baby super" companies, and in some ways it goes clear back to Sperry-Rand) and RIM just happens to be a particularly good recent example.   What is it about getting early success from a brilliant team of engineers that creates a corporate-culture that is so anti-marketing that it can't adapt later?

Is it the engineer mentality of "looking for the card that is so high and wild you'll never need to deal another?"  A surprising number of brilliant techfolk I've known have always seemed to be trying to "get done", i.e. create the perfect product once and for all.

Or is it that in the early days, because marketers are actually a pretty conservative lot and tend to want to sell a product the way something else sold before, the company's marketing department gets typed as the nay-sayers and the scaredy-cats, and a department people don't respect has a pretty hard time recruiting talent?

Maybe the most interesting question is, how do places like Apple mostly avoid getting into that deadly corner?

Mitch Wagner
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My favorite example of a tech company with bad marketing was SCO. Not the patent trolls, but the great Unix company that came before them. More than 20 years ago, they pioneered PC servers, multi-user PCs, and other things we take for granted today. But they never hit the mainstream and got clobbered by the 1-2 punch of Windows and Linux. 

Engineers view marketers as the dreaded "suits" (1), corporate enemies to be despised, alongside sales. It's part of the antipathy between engineers and corporate.

An engineering organization can get by without a formal marketing department if they're selling the product to other engineers. That was the key to DEC's early success: They sold computers to other engineers.

Likewise Facebook was initially made by college kids for college kids. If you're part of the target market for your product, you can succeed on word-of-mouth rather than formal marketing. For a while. If you're lucky.  

IBM, on the other hand, pioneered selling computing devices as business machines. Part of IBM's marketing was that everybody in the company wore conservative suits. They looked like businessmen, not engineers. And they chose their target market 

As for Apple: Their marketing success, as with other success, derives from Steve Jobs. He realized that all business processes are one thing. There was no antagonism between marketing and engineers at Apple, they were all working together for a common goal. 

(1) More likely to wear Business Casual nowadays. 

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Tech companies easily fall into this weakness of concentrating on the technicals with complete disregard to the enabling environment. One thing they need to remember though is that you innovate to sell. You innovate for people that are out there. Therefore you have to keep in touch with them through marketing.

Should you lose touch, someone else takes over with a perfect substitute product. By the time you re-emerge with your new genius product, you might have a problem finding someone to use it.

Barbara Krafte
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Hello Infiniti,

I agree with your comments with one exception. What RIM did extremely well they did when they had no competition. Any company can do well in a world where they write the rules. Once the pressure was on, they got sloppy and I think so blind sighted by Apple and Google, they became careless  (the system wide outage last fall being one example).

Without a marketing strategy except one based on a product with a single solution targeting a narrow audience, they were pretty much doomed. A solid marketing foundation is like having money in the bank. You can always rely on it when times get tough.


Mitch Wagner
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Re: Resting on one's laurels
Mitch Wagner   4/6/2012 10:26:31 AM

Good point, Barbara. RIM essentially provided one service: Mobile enterprise email. When they got a lot of competition there, they couldn't keep up. 

 A solid marketing foundation is like having money in the bank. You can always rely on it when times get tough.

Well said!

Barbara Krafte
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John Barnes  - good points.

Besides Palm, I agree the closest recent parallel to RIM might be Wang. Although the reasons are much more complicated, there are four fundamental underpinnings for the decline of companies like RIM, DEC, and Wang:  

1. Disregard for fundamental changes in the market

2. Solely reliant on a single innovation

3. Marketing strategy disconnected from the business strategy

4. A fundamental disregard for the customer

3. and 4. are two sides of the same coin.

In Wang's case among other things, their decline had to do with its exceptionally bad customer service and the refusal to recognize what the buyer wanted. Jim Collins (Good to Great) points to a compelling factoid behind why most companies fail in  latest book, How the Mighty Fall: "Decline, it turns out, is largely self-inflicted, and the path to recovery lies largely within a company's own hands." Companies, like RIM, would be wise to embrace it.


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Re: Resting on one's laurels
Ryck   4/6/2012 11:03:30 AM

In RIM's case, the company suffered from two fatal flaws related to a changing environment:  first was the consumerization of smartphones.  As smartphones moved to having applicability and value to non-business types, the smartphone is no longer relegated to the corporate domain, so there was a large market to be tapped, and; secondly, the BYOD movement shifted the buying decision, even in a corporate setting, to individuals who make decisions on a personal, rather than a business, basis.

Barbara Krafte
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Mitch -

Hats off to IBM. They pioneered marketing. They're one of the few companies whose place in Tom Peter's Search For Excellence is still relevant.

Forgetting their marketing roots almost lost the company, but it was also the reason for its renaissance. They are one of business' premier marketers and held up as a model, too often ignored by companies like RIM, Wang, Dec, etc.


Mitch Wagner
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