The Rebranding of Blackberry: Of Geese, Ganders and Keys

By Neil Wilkof

As probably many Kat readers are well aware, Research in Motion (RIM) issued three announcements at the end of January—one large, one medium and one small (sort of like the egg rack at this Kat’s local grocery) here. First the “large”—after much anticipation, the company announced the launch of the BlackBerry10 smartphone which, it is hoped, will enable the company to blunt the seeming free-fall in its market share. As for the “medium”, the company advised that it will change its company name to “BlackBerry”. And as for the “small”,  the company informed that it has engaged the multi-winning Grammy singer Alicia Keys here to serve as its creative director (“in her own words, “to inspire creativity with this platform”).
It is not this Kat’s intention to dwell too much on the larger commercial woes that have beset BlackBerry.  Instead, it wants to focus on the “medium” and the “small” and,  in particular, why the company decided to change its company name. The common wisdom, at least from this Kat’s review of the media following the announcement, is that it is viewed as an obvious move and a long time in coming. No one really identifies the company with “RIM”;  “BlackBerry” has become an iconic brand (even if less so, perhaps, as an iconic product) and it is the name that everyone calls the company is daily discourse. Nevertheless, ever the feline curmudgeon, this Kat would like to express a couple of observations/reservations.

First, changing a company name under the shadow of threats to the company’s long-term commercial viability has an element of desperation about it. This Kat is not so sure that this is the message that the company wishes to send. Moreover, the fact that the mark “BlackBerry” is iconic does not necessarily mean that it should now become the name by which the entire company wishes to be known across its entire product line.  True, the company has had limited success with its Play Book tablet here, but at least the thinking is correct that it needs to expand its product offerings. The likelihood of the company surviving long-term on the basis of a single product line is slight. Just ask Nokia, as it seeks to compete successfully in the smartphone space (and Nokia is a company that has totally remade itself several times in its nearly 150-year history here, tracing its roots to a paper company in the 1860s).

At the risk of being a bit outworn in the comparison, Apple has succeeded in maintaining its corporate brand identity separate and distinct from its various blockbuster products. True, Apple has the constant challenge of coming up with new products, but so do RIM, Nokia and all other real and pretended competitors.  The ultimate value-added factor for the Apple brand lies in its ability to conjure up all of its various products and services. It does not seem that relying on “BlackBerry” will  enable the company to achieve the same kind of branding value for the company name.

As for the connection between Alicia Keys and the BlackBerry brand, this is an interesting arrangement,  but this Kat believes that it will have limited long-term significance. The “face and voice” of a company for branding purposes can only go so far, no matter who is the person is. Also, this Kat does not know to what extent Alicia Keys is recognized outside of North America. While obviously the company needs first and foremost to shore up its market share in North America (where she is a well-known musical artist), it also needs to maintain its position in such emerging markets as India and Indonesia.

There is also an interesting aspect regarding the interplay between trade marks and the company name. As a general rule, those who engage in trade mark practice recognize the push back that he or she receives when the client, usually connected with a legal dispute,  may need to change one of its central trade marks. “Oh the cost, “oh the time”, “oh the company distraction”, and “oh the risk that the new mark will not be successful”, are among the refrains that one hears.  And yet, to the contrary, companies at their own initiative, to spruce up a company’s brand and commercial image, will not infrequently change the company name, despite the same set of concerns.  Can it be what is good for “the trade mark goose” may not apply to “the company name gander? If so, this Kat wonders whether there are empirical studies that have examined whether such a move by a company does improve their brand; if so, under what circumstances; and how does the BlackBerry move fit within such a range of circumstances?

[This post originally appeared at IPKat.]


  1. I for one have never heard of Alicia Keys so why would I care what some pop star thinks of a brand of phone that is so passé that even backward leaning IT departments have dumped it.

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