marketingmagazine.co.uk, Wednesday, 17 August 2011 12:00AM
Within 24 hours of a leading blog suggesting that BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) was driving the co-ordination of rioters, the idea had been republished and adapted so that BBM appeared responsible for fuelling the riots. Once the reaction and blame-mongering have settled, I would be surprised if technology is held to account when the causes of these awful acts clearly lie elsewhere. Social networks do not cause riots - people do.
That BlackBerry has evolved from the tool of choice for busy executives to a popular tool among urban youth culture is largely down to technology. BlackBerry faces a tricky challenge here: to assist law-enforcement officials without violating basic privacy rights.
So, while a delicate situation to negotiate, the riots are unlikely to affect the brand in the longer term. Its far bigger challenge rests with providing technology that can beat off the new messenger services being launched by rivals. Not doing so is fuel for an altogether different disaster.
BlackBerry was a platform, not a contributor, and the focus is now moving on to other closed-messaging platforms such as WhatsApp. However, it might be symbolic of a deep-seated challenge that will ultimately have an impact.
BlackBerry has its roots as an 'adult' business brand that is responsible and mature - it created the market for 'on the move' internet and email access.
The more recent success of BlackBerry Messenger (commonly known as BBM) among young people poses a challenge in brand-stretch that may be more a case of brand schizophrenia. To retain its credibility and position as a business tool and be central to the lives of young people at the same time would stretch the best marketer.
Does its drive for youth suggest a brand that is trying to ride two horses?
If BlackBerry were a person, would it be the adult who's trying to be 'cool' with teens, using uncomfortable language that is easily derided? And how sustainable is the BBM focus with the growth of cross-platform competition?
Just as Twitter has been lambasted for its use in breaking superinjunctions, BlackBerry is being tarnished for the looting lunatics. This is tantamount to blaming road-builders for bad drivers or landlords for student hygiene.
BlackBerry devices are owned by about 37% of Britain's teens and, with its encryptions enabling BBM messages to go undetected, it has proven ideal for sharing criminal suggestions. Once the 'City boy' status symbol, it has been claimed by urban teens, recreating some of the branding challenges that have faced Burberry or Stella Artois. It is this that will harm the brand; restorative marketing will need to follow.
Nonetheless, the telecoms market has a momentum of its own. The speed of NPD and marketing means that customer profiles, fads and brand images can turn in days rather than years. So, while I believe that some people will blacklist Blackberry for negative image association, it will recover so long as the product keeps pace with the wildly innovative market.
It is quite clear who is to blame for the riots. Even in the short term, I don't think the BlackBerry reputation would or should be tarnished.
It is a very popular brand, particularly among the younger demographic, but cannot be held responsible for the content of messages sent via BBM. This is quite literally a case of 'don't shoot the messenger'. Whenever thugs have run amok there has been a means by which they have organised themselves. The problem lies with the criminals. We also may not yet be aware of how BlackBerry is helping identify the rioters.
What should be the focus of discussion is how brands respond to the riots and looting. Consider the retailers that handed out food and drinks to the 'riot Wombles' cleaning up afterward - this is a good example of how brands active in affected communities can play a part in standing against the abhorrent behaviour of ignorant criminals.
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