Failure to Launch: Lessons learned from the Playbook launch

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I’ll begin by admitting that I am a big fan of RIM and the BlackBerry. That little black device has been among the most reliable, useful, rugged and enjoyable pieces of technology I have ever owned. So I was particularly excited to see RIM move into the tablet market and, like many, sorely disappointed with the product launch that followed. Billed as perhaps the most important launch in the company’s history, I had some expectations of excitement and impact. There was none of those things. There were important lessons, though. That’s what this blog posting is about.

Lesson #1: Timing Matters
The announcement came at the end of September. Some of the early reviews were quite positive. Momentum was building. The actual product wouldn’t hit the store shelves until six months later, however. By then, many had grown weary of waiting and Apple had just launched the iPad 2.

The momentum was lost and the chance to appear to be ahead of the giant Apple rolling right at them was lost. Buzz is a precious commodity and RIM clearly didn’t have enough to last 6 months. More importantly, the delay – because that’s how it was interpreted – made the company look slow. Not the kind of positioning you want in a hyper-competitive marketplace.

The lesson here is to strike while the iron is hot. There was a clear window of opportunity and they missed it.

Lesson #2: Names Matter
I’ll be honest: I am the prototypical BlackBerry user/addict. I work hard. I work a lot. I take my work seriously. I look for products and ideas that will help me get more done. My BlackBerry helps me do that and has for many years. I was left slack-jawed when RIM revealed the name of their bold new product would be Playbook. I know, I know, a playbook can sometimes be used as a synonym for a plan. That kind of works. But I couldn’t shake the thought that Playbook would be a great name for a new FisherPrice computer made of bright orange plastic on which infants could play games. “There will be time for textbooks and notebooks. Today, let them learn with the Playbook.” It could work. My point is “play” is hardly what I think of doing first when it comes to RIM and information technology. They could have done much better. Names like Torch and Storm for the BlackBerry were much better choices. They should have been inspired by these.

The lesson here is make sure the brand identity you select aligns with the codes, biases and expectations of the audience. My sense – and I’m only a focus group of one – is this identity missed the mark on all three counts.

Lesson #3: Media Relations Matters
I work in PR which is perhaps why I came across links and tweets and posts on this BBC interview about two dozen times in one week. In it, Mike Lazaridis enters into an interview unprepared for questions about RIM’s troubles with governments in India and the Middle East. Worst still, the PR folks who failed to prepare him for the questions (no, it’s not a CEO’s job to anticipate the questions; that’s why they hire PR folks) then counsel him to call an end to the interview. Quite easily, one of the worst PR performances of the year. All this was right as the new Playbook was being launched. Suddenly, there was buzz but not the kind you want for a new product.

The lesson here is simple: every interview is an opportunity to communicate the key messages of a campaign. To do so effectively requires strong PR support and intense preparation. Neither was is evidence during what should have been considered a critically important interview.

Lesson #4: Display Matters
I own a BlackBerry and a PC laptop but I love the Apple store. It just may be my favourite store in the whole world. The products and the people positively beam with happiness. Everything is slick, it works and you can play with it all you like. It’s about as vibrant a place as you find in this entire city. Sadly, there is no RIM store. RIM is a religion without a cathedral. Instead, I came across (after some searching) a sad little display for the Playbook in my local Futureshop. The store, as it so often is, was impossibly loud, harshly lit and somewhat chaotic. The display featured a small sign, one Playbook to try and not a single beaming alterboy/genius to be found. Instead, I was left to struggle to figure out a fingerprint-stained Playbook whose battery seemed to have run out. Not impressive. Frustrating even. If the Playbook was indeed such an important product launch, more could have been done ensure a positive first experience in the retail setting or even in a non-traditional setting. Why not launch the product in coffee shops or bookstores or art galleries? Why not train and hire students to play the role of genius and guide people through their first experience?

The lesson here is that the physical environment in which messages are interpreted will help shape the way they are interpreted. The sights, sounds, smells and sensations all feed into the experience. Ensuring a more positive environment may have helped RIM ensure a more positive interpretation.

Lesson #5: Advertising Matters
Remember my earlier point about the name and about playing with the Playbook? Imagine, then, my dismay when the TV ad for the Playbook shows some person watching the movie Thor on his or her new Playbook. Then they play a car racing game. Really? Is that the first thing BlackBerry users want to do with this $500 piece of technology? last I checked, I could buy a DVD player for $90 and a gaming counsel for maybe $200. Surely this new tablet can do more impressive and important things.

A second TV spot reminds us that the Playbook runs Adobe Flash. This, by the way, is an important feature and competitive advantage. They communicate this feature by cutting an irritating version of Queen’s most forgettable song (Flash Gordon) and showing people designing high top running shoes. Again, I wonder how many of their core market are looking forward to using Adobe Flash to design high top sneakers? Really.

Somehow, the ads manage to say only a little about the product and they manage to display even less personality. Apple ads, as everyone well knows, have a knack for both displaying the company’s confident, creative and understated personality and delivering clear information on the benefits of the product. Somehow, between the music, the photography, the voice and the content, you just know it’s an Apple ad.

I think RIM could have found a strong and unique voice for its campaign. The voice should have been one that reflects the BlackBerry user: demanding, serious and determined to win. Imagine a recognizable athlete, entrepreneur or philanthropist who holds his or her Playbook, looks up at the camera and says simply: “If what you want to do is pretend you can draw with pastels on your tablet, great. If you want to listen to a cat repeat what you said in a funny voice, hey, go nuts. If you want to run a business, change the world and overtake the competition… get a Playbook.” How about a second spot in which our fearless spokesperson opines: “The internet is the most explosive, most important source of information our world has ever seen. It’s my competitive edge and no one – no one – is going to tell me what parts of it I can access. I want it all. I want it fast. And I want it securely. I own a Playbook.”

The lesson here is that advertising messages need to be clear and compelling. You don’t beat Starbucks by trying to out-Starbucks Starbucks. Find a unique voice. Find a niche. Understand what those people value and deliver it flawlessly.

In stark contrast to their ads and to the launch as a whole, RIM posted some impressive videos to their YouTube channel. In the Hopkins tradition of “reasons why” advertising, they clearly demonstrated the technological superiority of the Playbook. With a little more creativity, they could have been amazing commercials too.

PS: Nope, I don’t own a Playbook yet. But then, my birthday is coming up so you never know…

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