BlackBerry CMO talks new name, new phones and the game plan for a comeback

ANDY RAIN/EPA - The display of the new BlackBerry Z10 handset is pictured at the Blackberry smartphone launch in London, Britain, 30 January 2013.

When Frank Boulben took the job as BlackBerry’s chief marketing officer last year, he got two main reactions — neither of which reflected well on the company.

“Some the people told me it would be the hardest job in the world,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post at an Argyle Executive Forum event for CMOs Thursday. “The others said it would be the easiest,”he said, because there was no place to go but up.

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Boulben’s task — to keep BlackBerry in the conversation as it continues the global launch of its latest smartphone system — is certainly a daunting one. He was candid in saying that BlackBerry isn’t expecting to hit first place out of the gate, but is taking a shot at becoming the world’s third-place smartphone company behind Samsung and Apple.

In pursuit of the bronze medal, BlackBerry is shaping a new image that harkens back to its reputation for strong security and productivity features, while also trying to draw attention to new consumer features that will convince buyers to use the phones for work and play. And he’s tapping the company’s current and former customer base, asking them to spread the word about BlackBerry or give the company a second shot.

His most notable change, of course, has been to rebrand the company to reflect its most iconic product: the BlackBerry. Before the name change, he said, BlackBerry customers were starting to refer to their phones by their model names such as the Torch or the Curve rather than by the brand.

“We had to move from a house of brands to a branded house,” he said.

The company’s also focusing closely on marketing to those who left the brand for the iPhone or other devices, as well as reaching out to its loyal user base — primarily business customers — to spread the word that BlackBerry’s mounting a comeback.

In the enterprise space, security is still a key factor the company is promoting. BlackBerry is facing competition for business customers, most notably from Samsung, which launched its own version of a BlackBerry feature that separates personal and professional data on users’ phones. Boulben was a bit dismissive of that effort, saying that BlackBerry’s approach to security is built in rather than the result of modifications to the open Android system.

Boulben has also tapped some star power, hiring musician Alicia Keys as the company’s creative director. He said the company very consciously picked Keys not only because she fits their profile of a BlackBerry user (highly productive multitaskers), but also because she was a former BlackBerry user who is coming back to the brand.

Using her as a prototypical example, he said, lets the company tell former BlackBerry users that company attributes such as a focus on productivity haven’t changed, but that BlackBerry’s also moved to fix some of the problems — no 4G options, weak camera and poor multimedia capabilities — with its phones as well.

The company has also launched a wider campaign to reach those who have never had or considered a BlackBerry, perhaps most visibly with a whimsical one-off spot during the Super Bowl that highlighted what the phone couldn’t do, such as perform magic tricks. The Super Bowl ad, he said, wasn’t in line with the rest of the company’s marketing, but was supposed to get people talking about the company in the gap between BlackBerry’s January launch event and its March U.S. market debut.

“That was supposed to let people know that BlackBerry is back,” he said.

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