How the arts (and Neil Gaiman) are saving BlackBerry from obsolescence

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BlackBerry doesn’t want to die.

It’s been hurting for a long time. The company formerly known as Research in Motion has gone from being the top smartphone maker in the world—one of the first whose devices merited the term—to a community laughingstock. Part of that blame can be laid on the iPhone: It changed the industry BlackBerry helped found, and the company has been trying to figure out a way forward ever since—not always successfully. Its profitability has taken a topsy-turvy ride, jobs and services have been cut, and its marketshare has plummeted.

So what do you do when your brand is being mocked and analysts are shouting your demise? You focus on your customers, not your critics, and you keep moving. To do so, BlackBerry decided to become a patron of the arts.

Rebranding the advertorial

When you purchase a smartphone, you have your traditional feature checklist, but above all you want to know that it can support you in your life. You want to be able to communicate, to share, and to play. You want a digital companion as much as a device. Apple uses apps (and those who use them) to make this point. Microsoft captures celebrities’ daily routines. But when you’re on the ropes, it’s not enough to ape another company’s style. You have to reintroduce users to your brand, and you must do so in a way that doesn’t feel forced or contrived.

BlackBerry’s Keep Moving project has similar hallmarks to its competitors: It uses celebrities. It incorporates apps and BlackBerry hardware. There’s video, and advertorial content abounds. But the project doesn’t feel like an ad. It’s a showcase. An invitation. It says, “Hello, world. Come play with us.” The project has so far paired three artists—Alicia Keys, Robert Rodriguez, and Neil Gaiman—with their fans to create pieces using social media and BlackBerry 10.

The Keep Moving project challenged three artists, including author Neil Gaiman (right), to collaborate with their fans. Gaiman wrote stories inspired by fans’ tweets, which were then illustrated by other fans.

TechHive covered the launch of Neil Gaiman’s effort in March: Gaiman prompted his followers on Twitter with questions about each month of the year, then used the results to create short stories for each month; these stories were then illustrated by artists around the globe.

Advertisement as art

As a follower of Gaiman’s Twitter feed, I watched much of the conversation unfold on February 4, not really knowing the origin of the project. Gaiman has done Twitter-sourced projects in the past, such as 8in8, his venture with wife Amanda Palmer and friends Ben Folds and Damian Kulash; it was an experiment to write and record an eight-song album in eight hours, based off Twitter responses. (Their final count was six songs in 12 hours—still no easy feat.) Having spent much of that February day on a plane, I never personally responded to any of the calendar prompts, but found myself dipping into the well of calendar hashtags to read the replies of others around the globe. “An anonymous Mother’s Day gift,” one read, in response to the question “What’s the weirdest gift you’ve ever been given in May?” The tweet concluded, “Think about that for a moment.”

I did think. And so did Gaiman; that tweet and eleven others became the source material for A Calendar of Tales, the end result of which is viewable online in its entirety. It’s a beautiful, haunting, hilarious piece of work, bylined “By Neil Gaiman and You.” BlackBerry has no prominent place in the header—it instead hides tastefully off to the side, with only a small logo on the left to indicate the company had a hand in the result.

BlackBerry’s launch party for A Calendar of Tales, which I had the pleasure of attending, was equally humble. I came, expecting to be shuttled into a room with a couple hundred journalists and listen to BlackBerry press representatives preach about the strength of the platform, with a quick appearance by Gaiman. Instead, I found myself in a room with fewer than 30 people, most of whom were Calendar collaborators and lucky Gaiman Twitter followers who had won a spot via email. Calendar of Tales artwork lined the small room at the Cambridge Multicultural Center, while Gaiman’s video diaries played in the rear corner.

Gaiman read several of the Tales aloud at the launch event, their illustrated companions standing nearby.

And as I looked at the paintings, drinking a raspberry lime rickey out of a wine glass and listening to Gaiman joke with bystanders in the background, I realized I hadn’t been invited to a press briefing at all. The event was a celebration of the work, and the few BlackBerry representatives there spoke only of their admiration for Gaiman and his collaborators. No leading questions about how essential his BlackBerry Z10 was to the process. Not a hint of forced product evangelism. Just respect for the process.

That’s the beauty of this advertising campaign: It doesn’t feel like a campaign at all. BlackBerry is appealing both to users it’s lost as well as those it never had in the first place, but not by force-feeding the public with commercials about how great its products are—instead, the company supports exciting projects created with BlackBerry devices.

The press team has somehow managed a brilliant feat: associating the BlackBerry name with the arts. And by inviting artists to collaborate with their followers, BlackBerry has found a natural way to release this message out into the wild. It doesn’t need to spend millions on commercials that say, “I’m Neil Gaiman, and I’m a BlackBerry user” when it can spend far less to fund an art project and have thousands of people vitally interested in its result (and later on, perhaps in a BlackBerry device).

The future of BlackBerry

The Keep Moving project alone isn’t going to save BlackBerry. As we’ve seen from its competitors, the company needs strong hardware, software, and a great app ecosystem to survive. But message is almost as important in this game of phones, and BlackBerry is doing some fantastic brand building with this campaign.

It’s not the business-oriented RIM of old, but it’s not the bumbling BlackBerry of a few years ago, either. It’s more thoughtful, more youth-oriented. And while I’m happy with Apple and my iPhone, the Keep Moving project has—for the first time—given me some respect for the Canadian company. I can only hope the next new releases on the hardware and software side can match it.

This story, "How the arts (and Neil Gaiman) are saving BlackBerry from obsolescence" was originally published by TechHive.

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