What happened to the BlackBerry?

Lessons in the rapid rise and fall of an iconic brand for today’s business leaders.

Everyone who was anyone owned a BlackBerry

If you were anyone in business, show business or politics you owned a BlackBerry smartphone. It was the ultimate status symbol in boardrooms, meeting rooms and party rooms of the world – it said you had made it professionally.

For those further down the corporate or social ladder the sign-off on every BlackBerry email ‘SENT FROM MY BLACKBERRY’ was a constant reminder that you still had a way to climb. 

The BlackBerry ‘smartphone’ with its distinctive keyboard was a revolution when it hit the market in 2002, offering mobile productivity features such as push email, web browsing and messaging. This was at a time when the features of the world’s top selling phone were an inbuilt calendar and polyphonic ring tones!

One of the smartest strategic decisions BlackBerry made was to ignore the popular consumer market, and instead focus on those customers willing to pay a premium for the ability to send and receive emails from anywhere at any time – business!

“I cannot live without my BlackBerry.”

BlackBerry became an iconic B2B brand because it made itself deeply relevant to the business community. It was not uncommon to hear people say “I cannot live without my BlackBerry.” It “was so ubiquitous on Wall Street and Capitol Hill that it earned the nickname CrackBerry.”[1]

At its peak BlackBerry controlled over 50% of the global smartphone market, was growing at 25% every quarter and struggling to keep up with demand. It was a hugely successful business that was seen as virtually unstoppable.

How did Blackberry go rotten?

By 2016, BlackBerry owned less than 1% of the global smartphone market – a massive vote of no confidence in a brand that people once thought they could never live without.

In 2007, when Steve Jobs walked on stage and said “This is an iPhone”, BlackBerry knew where its greatest threat would come from.

Interestingly, when Apple announced the touchscreen iPhone, Google were working on a keyboard phone. The moment Steve Jobs held up the iPhone Google immediately abandoned their keyboard for a touchscreen.

BlackBerry leadership did not take the threat of the iPhone seriously.

At the time the iPhone was announced the network technology was not yet in place to support all the connectivity features promised by Apple. This is perhaps one of the reasons why BlackBerry leadership did not take the threat of the iPhone seriously.

Two years later when the technology was in place, BlackBerry quickly found themselves playing catch-up.  

Some of the other factors that conspired to ultimately bring down the business were:

    • BlackBerry was incredibly successful. When you’re one of the fastest growing companies in the world and an iconic brand it is difficult to admit to yourself that the business might not exist in a few year’s time, regardless of what the facts are telling you.
    • When BlackBerry’s shares were climbing and market sentiment was on the company’s side leadership were unable to take the hard decision to reinvent and reposition to stay relevant to the market.
    • While the market quickly adapted to, and gained a preference for, touchscreen technology, BlackBerry steadfastly refused to abandon their keyboard. While the keyboard was an iconic feature of the brand, in the eyes of customers it became a symbol of irrelevance in the age of touchscreen technology.
    • They persisted with their once revolutionary operating system, which had pioneered the introduction of ‘push’ email, despite the fact that it couldn’t run apps. The failure to notice and adapt to the rapid rise of apps was a critical breakdown of vision.
    • By the time they realised they had been left behind, BlackBerry made half-hearted and clunky attempts to catch up. But it was too late. “RIM co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie responded with a remarkable imitation of two deer caught in the headlights. First, there was disbelief, then mockery, and finally, agonisingly slow, grudging efforts to catch up.”[2]
The lessons in BlackBerry for today’s business leaders

The leadership team at BlackBerry made a lot of mistakes, but one of their biggest was to think they knew their customers better than anyone else. They assumed that because customers had been loyal in the past, making the brand one of the most iconic on the planet, they would remain loyal in the future. The truth is customers are fickle creatures, and they will jettison you for the next innovation that improves their lives without a second thought.

When Apple looked to stay relevant by transforming the customer experience through the introduction of the iPhone, it did so at the expense of one of its most successful products ever – the iPod.

Brands that don’t stay relevant are punished severely.

Brands that don’t stay relevant are punished severely, because customers feel that while they have been loyal to the business, the business hasn’t been loyal to them in making sure they get the best products, service or experience possible.

It may seem counterintuitive when business is going well to undertake a brand relevance-check with customers, after all they’re buying what you’re selling.

However, when the bottom line numbers are good it is easy for leadership teams to become complacent and believe in their own greatness. It is only by staying deeply connected to customers, constantly listening to what they want and being empathetic to their needs can you make sure your business will endure through the endless ups and downs of the business cycle.



We are a creative business consultancy that fuses together business strategy, brand and culture to help businesses and brands stay relevant to their customers. 

We work with ambitious B2B leaders to drive transformation and accelerate growth by unlocking competitive advantage within their businesses. We get to the heart of an organisation’s unique reason for being, its ideology, and build the brand from the inside-out by embedding it in the culture and in every customer experience.

Jaimie Ratten
Posted by Jaimie Ratten
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