A view from Dave Trott: It’s not about brand, it’s about product

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

For us, the most useful part of the movie BlackBerry is near the beginning.

BlackBerry is just an idea inside the heads of some tech geeks: a mobile phone with a tiny keyboard that can send and receive emails.

The geeks hire Jim Balsillie, a marketing man, as their joint CEO. They need him to do what they can’t, which is to sell their invention.

He arranges a meeting with the board of Bell Atlantic, and this is the interesting part for us.

He explains that Bell Atlantic’s marketing department is currently selling the wrong thing.

Their advertising is promoting “togetherness”: staying in touch with friends and family, a nice warm feeling.

The problem is people can get “togetherness” with any network provider. “Togetherness” isn’t Bell Atlantic’s product, their marketing department is just trying to do the same thing as everyone else, they’re trying to do generic brand advertising.

They’ve forgotten what their product is. He says “You’re not selling togetherness, you’re selling minutes” – that’s the product. They need people to buy their minutes, in other words to switch to their network – in other words, they need a product difference.

Just doing the same generic brand advertising as everyone else won’t do that, there’s no reason to switch.

Up until then, most mobile phones were just for talking and texting, so mainly domestic usage, hence “togetherness”.

Balsillie shows them the BlackBerry prototype with a keypad on it and shows how, for the first time, a mobile phone can be used for EMAILS. So it’s like having a laptop computer with you everywhere. He says: “You’re no longer selling togetherness, now you’re selling self-reliance.”

And with that insight the entire mobile phone world shifted.

The BlackBerry was for anyone who saw themselves as a serious businessperson. It was a status symbol you placed on the table in any meeting: “So that my office can get hold of me anywhere with important emails.”

Mobile phones were for domestic use, but BlackBerries were for business. People wanted to prove they were in the loop so they checked them constantly.

Putting an ordinary mobile phone on the table in a meeting said you were a junior. But putting a BlackBerry on the table said your office needed to be in touch with you all the time, you were that important.

This came from the business insight: “How do you make your money: you sell minutes?” Then the question became: “How can you sell more minutes?” Answer: by looking where other companies aren’t competing.

Then the question: “Where aren’t other companies competing and why?”

Answer: “They’re all competing in the domestic market because they don’t have the technology needed for business.” And that immediately became the opportunity that BlackBerry’s innovation solved.

If Balsillie had tried to sell the BlackBerry as the latest in mobile phones, it would have failed. Why would anyone need a complete computer keypad on their domestic phone? Why would anyone need to send and receive emails on their domestic phone? .

Instead, it became a massive opportunity that no-one else spotted. Pretty soon, BlackBerry had 85 million subscribers – that’s 43 per cent of the smartphone market. It reversed conventional thinking: “It’s not about generic brand, it’s about product.”