BlackBerry at CES: Channeling Steve Jobs for the Turnaround

Rob Enderle
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When I was told that BlackBerry was going to be at CES, I thought someone had missed a meeting. CES is a consumer electronics event and BlackBerry had just begun to execute a strategy that is allowing it to put focus back on the enterprise. However, rather than being a screw-up, the result was an amazing shift of coverage from BlackBerry the failure to BlackBerry making a successful turnaround. I think this is fascinating and I want to explain why I think it worked.

The Forgotten Aspect of a Turnaround

The most powerful part of a turnaround effort, as demonstrated by Steve Jobs, is that of belief. What Jobs did that was unique in his turnaround of Apple was that he met with Bill Gates hat in hand and struck a deal where Apple would stop trying to sue Microsoft and become a strategic partner again in exchange for around a $200M investment. The key part for Apple was that both the investment by the richest guy in the world and the renewed relationship created the impression that Apple was on the mend, both investors and key influencers switched from believing Apple would absolutely fail—which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy—to believing Apple was on the mend, which also can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You see, if people believe a company will fail, they won’t invest in or buy from the firm. If they believe the firm is at a low point but will improve, then the firm flips from a bad investment to an incredibly good one and customers are again comfortable buying from it. Jobs uniquely dealt with the image of the failure first in the late 1990s, and while the firm wasn’t truly out of the woods until nearly five years later, it was the belief that it would be that drove that result. Investors that backed the belief did very well financially and customers that bought looked particularly smart at the end of the cycle. And yet, the only thing that really changed was how the company was viewed. The structural and product changes that actually turned the firm around not only occurred subsequently, they likely were dependent on the “belief” being fixed first.

BlackBerry at CES

While CES is a consumer show, increasingly those covering tech are asked to cover both consumer and business segments and there wasn’t that much business news at the show. In effect, you had a ton of folks who still needed to write business-oriented stories, yet all they were getting were tons of product announcements. BlackBerry stood out by having a business message during a consumer show and it was then able to get audiences to hear its turnaround story and the progress it had made.

Folks were already feeling positive, largely because this year’s CES was one of the best in history and they were impressed with what John Chen had to say. His message was key in flipping the coverage of BlackBerry from a company that was sure to fail, to one that is on the mend and recovering. This is impressive work by Chen, who appears to have grasped the core of Jobs’ strategy from the Apple turnaround. Although, Chen has implemented a similar plan using the resources at his disposal, the use of CES as a mechanism has been uniquely creative.

NSA Help

While it isn’t directly called out as a factor, I think the NSA disclosures—particularly those calling out the penetration of Apple products—provided a critical boost for BlackBerry by focusing the market back on the importance of security. You may recall that Apple responded to the disclosure that tracking software had been put on its phones without its knowledge by declaring it had not worked with the NSA, which wasn’t a denial that the software was on the phones. It merely seemed to confirm the part of the report that said this was done without Apple’s knowledge. Security and IT folks who are used to looking at the nuances in announcements likely saw this as a tacit admission that the iPhones were compromised and that BlackBerry was, thanks to being a Canadian company, uniquely immune to the NSA efforts. Security was once again much more important than consumer features, particularly for executive phones.

Wrapping Up

A saying that I’ve repeated for years, “perception is 100 percent of reality,” has been proven once again here. By focusing on correcting the perceptions that surround BlackBerry both effectively and quickly, John Chen may have assured a positive result. I think this is a powerful lesson that goes back to Steve Jobs, but is often forgotten. That is largely why many turnarounds fail. Chen is showcasing early on that he has the unique skills needed to pull off this turnaround and with some unanticipated help from the NSA, the prognoses for BlackBerry just got a ton better. Nice work, John.

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