BlackBerry’s Coca-Cola Moment

BlackBerry CEO John Chen is trying to turn the company’s fortunes around, and something it has in common with Coca-Cola could help. This is something very important, if BlackBerry realizes it. It’s something that if done correctly could help the company succeed once again.

I have followed BlackBerry for many years, watching its ups and predicting its downs. I believe that if its leaders are alert — and if they can learn — the company can recover.

Coca-Cola has been around forever. It has been one of America’s best-known and most loved brands for more years than most of us have been alive. It inspires a special emotional connection with customers, sort of like Apple does.

However, in spite of all its success — which took decades to build — Coca-Cola execs almost flushed it all down the drain overnight. A company’s path can change directions, from success to failure, in a heartbeat.

Eve of Destruction

Remember several years ago, when Coca-Cola executives thought they knew the product better than the customer? They changed the recipe. They thought they were making a big move — and it was indeed very big. It was one big punch in the nose.

Coca-Cola had been around forever. It had been on many consumers’ taste buds since they were kids who walked to the corner store for a bottle of pop. It was part of America.

Many adults knew and loved the classic taste of Coke. It brought back memories of childhood, and they wanted to extend that relationship to their children. That nostalgia was something that benefited both the family and the Coca-Cola brand.

The customer feedback on the recipe change was immediate, negative and intense. Customers did not like anyone messing around with the Coca-Cola they loved. Customers wanted to know who those executives thought they were.

The bottom line was that Coca-Cola owned the secret recipe and could do anything it chose. However, that didn’t mean customers would buy the new Coke. The change was a disaster.

That was the colossal mistake Coca-Cola’s execs made. The feedback it generated may have been the worst any company has ever received — to date. The executives were stunned. They didn’t know what to do. They were like deer frozen in the headlights as traffic approached. If they stayed rooted to that spot, they would have been mowed over, and that might have been the end of Coca-Cola.

However Coca-Cola did something very unusual for a corporate giant. Its executives said they were wrong. They admitted the customer knew best. They apologized for screwing around with the brand, and they brought back the good, old-fashioned Coca-Cola recipe.

Those executives gave in to mounting customer pressure. If they hadn’t, that may have been the end of the company. That move not only saved it, but also propelled it forward once again.

Coca-Cola’s customer relationships were very close and special lifelong bonds. They took years to build, but they were almost destroyed overnight.

So how does this fit in with BlackBerry?

Batter Up

BlackBerry’s story is so similar it is scary. Initially, customers loved the company, and it grew. It had a very strong brand and a special relationship with the customer. BlackBerry led the smartphone sector for years.

Then the marketplace suddenly changed. Apple debuted the iPhone, Google introduced the Android operating system, and Samsung took over leadership almost overnight, neck-and-neck with Apple. It happened so quickly BlackBerry didn’t see ut coming.

BlackBerry was not the only company struggling to survive this change. Palm died. Nokia was pummeled. The entire industry changed over the last few years.

The call for new leadership and new vision came. Long-time BlackBerry CEOs who founded the company were forced to resign. A new CEO came in with radical ideas that looked as though they could be successful. However, when BlackBerry 10 launched, it was a dismal failure.

BlackBerry changed leadership once again, and now John Chen is at the helm. So far, I like what I see. However, there are still many questions. Will he take the company in the right direction?

Chen didn’t immediately steer away from BlackBerry 10. To my way of looking at this situation, BB10 was a disaster. I have been saying since the beginning that the company should pull the new devices and go back to the old, faithful and successful design of BlackBerry 7.

It would have to update the software and operating system and speed of the devices, of course, but if it did, I believe it could continue to win and grow.

So my recommendation to BlackBerry is to do what Coca-Cola did. Say you are sorry. Say you now understand BB10 is a disaster. Say you will go back to BlackBerry 7 and keep improving that operating system and the devices that run it — just like Apple, Google and Samsung do every year.

Is this what John Chen is finally starting to do? It’s not clear, but I sure hope so.

Coca-Cola won in the end. So can BlackBerry, if John Chen understands and takes the right next steps.

BlackBerry, turn this into a big marketing and public relations event. Say you were wrong, and that you are listening to your customers and going back to BlackBerry 7, the software your customers really liked, modernizing it to keep it fresh. Then, maybe, just like Coca-Cola, you can hit a home run.

Jeff Kagan

E-Commerce Times columnist Jeff Kagan is a technologyindustry analyst and consultant who enjoys sharing his colorful perspectives on the changing industry he's been watching for 25 years. Email him at [email protected].

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