Friday, September 21, 2007

RIM shot.


27D is still poking away at his Blackberry. We’re climbing out of LaGuardia in air traffic so thick you need more than one hand to count the planes you can see out the window, and this post-modern Willy Loman is peering with porcine intensity into the little glowing screen, typing with the unmistakable cadence of someone who is being answered. We suspect he still has the transmitter turned on, but cannot prove it without a confrontation. I even give the ol’ cut-eye to the flight attendant, but she seems uninterested in asking Willy if he has something he’d like to share with the rest of the class.

The tension this generates is only finally broken by a slightly panicked announcement from the cockpit begging whomever is using a Blackberry to turn it off because it’s generating “some confusing messages from the plane’s TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System)”. You know, the thing that keeps planes from hitting each other. Especially here in the most crowded airspace on the planet, as the senior flight attendant tersely points out to Willy before he emits a bored sigh and – with leisurely deliberation that seems to belie his otherwise apparent indispensability to the world – shuts the damned thing down and pockets it. And here’s the word that flashes through my mind:

Typical.

Some of my best friends use Blackberries, and no user I know personally would ever do anything this biblically stupid. Yet this stereotype sticks so naturally to the brand. And so, with no bar service to lighten the mood, I’m left to contemplate why this might be. I suppose one obvious contributor is the cultural history of the device. Like cellular phones fifteen or twenty years back, Blackberries were first badged by the Type-As that first adopted them (I still smirk recalling the participant in an early 90s focus group who observed that “cell phones are how you identify jerks in restaurants”). It’s hard to give much benefit of the doubt to a brand that you first saw strapped to a stockbroker’s alligator belt just before the tech crash.

But I don’t think that totally explains it. The ‘berry is almost nine years old. By the time cell phones were that age, they were being marketed as Christmas gifts for the family. No, I think that the real reason why we are so willing to use this brand against its users lies not in anything that Research In Motion has done, but in what they have not done. Think about it: Can you remember ever hearing this brand’s voice? Remember one thing that it has ever said to its customers and prospects, on its own behalf or theirs?

No. You read about RIM being sued. You read about RIM suing someone else. You read about how much money Jim Balsillie makes. You read that RIM is a great place to work. You read about its stock price. But you never see this company stooping to the fundamental and respectful act of simply selling their product to us and, thus, acknowledging that we matter to them. They just take us for granted. And into this vacuum of purpose rushes the only assumption we could possibly make about the Blackberry brand: that the company behind it is arrogant and self-absorbed, just like 27D.

It’s a useful reminder that brands are the proceeds of observation. You can’t force people to see you a certain way just by advertising to them. But neither can you decide simply to not have a brand because you don’t have any serious competition and therefore don’t need one. If you have a name, if your conduct in the marketplace is observable, even through the behavior of your customers, you’re gonna get a brand. And the first time consumers find themselves in a position of real choice, it might just bite you, hard. Ask the phone companies.

Meanwhile, back on Flight 713, we’re taxiing to the gate in Toronto. Everyone’s turning on their communications devices and, what with the charming little boot-up tunes and the glowing displays, it is as if the plane is suddenly filled with magical fairies. Willy joins in, but it appears that he hasn’t received any messages since nearly killing us all in the skies over Queens. It seems the world carried on just fine for 45 minutes without him.

Typical.