Watching financial pundits bandy about the impending demise of RIM and its product line Blackberry is equivalent to conductors yelling "JUMP!" before a rather slow-moving train approaches a cliff. Which passengers will listen? Who will wait until the last moment, thinking they will be saved, before they jump? For both Blackberry users and retail giants such as AT&T and Verizon, timing could mean everything.
From a marketing point of view, there is huge opportunity amid the present conundrum and potential chaos. Millions of consumers own Blackberry products. What will happen to them if/when RIM shutters its doors? It's not out of the realm of reality to imagine a situation in which RIM folds in the middle of the night and millions of Blackberry products stop functioning all at once. Hopefully such a catastrophe could be averted or at least delayed, but it is nonetheless possible. Retailers who sell Blackberrys would be inundated with calls (if the consumers can find a way to make them) and visits to retail outlets by consumers demanding new products that actually function. Certainly, this "run on the banks" scenario (or any other phase out that causes panic) is not a position that retailers who provide the services for Blackberry want to find themselves in. Factor in the lost revenue of customers holding products that don't work, and you've got the makings of the perfect maelstrom.
Those in the boardrooms of AT&T or Verizon at this very moment should be forming aggressive marketing strategies that not only deliver Blackberry users into a new smart phones and long term contracts, but grab market share from retail competitors.
First, offer phone upgrades/exchanges to all customers who use Blackberry. If they are not eligible for a free phone in their plan, consumers deep discounts on a smart phone(s) in exchange for enrolling in a new contract. Gradual changeovers will help avoid some of the onslaught if/when Blackberry goes under. Further, the strategy will be good for business, as new contracts will be signed and some smart phones purchased. There might even be financial opportunity for the retailer to partner with Samsung, for example, to become the featured swap smart phone.
Second, offer to change over any Blackberry user with the same deal you're offering your customers, and maybe throw in a new customers rate plan for the first six months or year to make it even more enticing.
Of course, RIM will not like the idea of a product swap featuring their flailing PDA one bit, as it would mean yet another nail in the coffin. RIM might try to retaliate with a host of lawsuits and other cries of foul play. However, the retailers must keep their customers happy, first and foremost. The messaging could be tailored in such a way as to not throw RIM under the bus, but that might not be necessary.
In order to protect themselves, the retailers could couch the messaging. "Bring in the PDA you want to swap, and let us make you a deal" could get around the issue of calling out Blackberry. The retailers could also make a "concern" play in its direct customer communications. "We understand you're concerned about the future of your Blackberry, which we believe is in no imminent danger. However, we would like to offer you the opportunity to switch." Blackberry users are already wondering what will come of them, and the first retailer to help them figure that out will win.
Business is a game of percentages. Yes, there's a chance RIM can survive. However, there's even a bigger chance it won't, and a bigger opportunity whether it does or not in allowing consumers to leave it now. If it finds a way to make it through, the consumers who stayed are still on board. If not, the retailer with the most moxie will have used RIM's uncertain status as a means to shore up its own consumers and lure others from its competitors.
There are profitable ways to slay the Blackberry beast. The real story will be in which major retailer figures out the right formula and offers it to consumers first.
Sarah O'Leary is a marketing veteran and owner of Methods & Madness, Inc., a marketing agency based in Los Angeles, and author of "Brandwashed: Why the Shopper Matters More Than What You're Selling." She can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.