BlackBerry turned down pop star Justin Bieber as a brand ambassador at the peak of its success, according to former executives at the company.
An oral history of the manufacturer was recently published in Bloomberg Businessweek. As well as charting the highs, including endorsements from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama and sales of 51 million per quarter, it also looked at what went wrong. Senior management complained of a needlessly bureaucratic structure as demand for its devices skyrocketed. Those interviewed said the company failed to keep up with changing consumer tastes. Brendan Kenalty, who worked in customer base management, said: 'All the market research was saying, “Hey, everybody wants what they call candy bar phones,” which is the nonflip phone. And the next [BlackBerry] product that came down the pipe was the new Pearl Flip. All the sales guys were, like, “What the hell? We asked you for big screens, touchscreens, more of these candy bar styles.” And they were, like, “Yeah, but we came up with this really cool technology about the hinge. Look at how this works!” There’s probably still a warehouse full of them.'
The dismissal of Bieber will be seen as a huge oversight. According to the article, the Canadian pop star approached them and asked for $200,000 in return for a brand ambassador role. Management reportedly said: 'This kid is a fad. He’s not going to last.' The company was later derided for hiring Alicia Keys as its creative director at the launch of its BB10 devices.
Ray Gillenwater, who spent five years at the company as a managing director, said the company did not change itself radically enough in response to the iPhone and Android devices. He said: 'If BlackBerry was going to be serious about consumers, they needed to make a fundamental shift in the way products were thought about, created, iterated, marketed, and sold. This was done but never to the extent necessary. It was always a partial effort. There was a period of time when this could have been corrected, but when it became apparent that HQ and senior leadership were not addressing systemic issues, people like myself left.'
Earlier this week, Blackberry's new CEO John Chen said the business was no longer for sale and was going back to its roots as a business friendly manufacturer. However, he urged customers to be patient as it tries to turn itself around.