Varghese Thomas: BlackBerry’s PR Strategy Goes Beyond the Consumer

Varghese Thomas, Director - Corporate Communications - India & Greater China at BlackBerry

Despite being the company that pioneered the concept of the smartphone, especially for corporate and enterprise use, Blackberry has seen a steady decline in global sales in the face of strong competition and innovation from competitors such as Apple and Samsung. With the launch of the Blackberry Z10, the re-branded company (it was previously Research in Motion) is attempting to reinvent the smartphone, evangelize consumers, and increase market share.

From a PR perspective, there is undoubtedly a challenge ahead but, in Varghese Thomas (Director – Corporate Communications – India & Greater China), Blackberry boasts one of the top corporate communicators in the region. With over 18 years of experience in brand communications – including substantial technology PR experience with previous roles in Cisco and Intel – Thomas is clearly someone who understands the landscape and the challenge ahead.

In an exclusive interview with Image Management, Thomas discusses Blackberry’s PR strategy, the client-agency relationship, and why doing PR in India is unique.

Q.  The general notion is that Blackberry has a lot riding on the success of the Z10. What is the PR strategy driving its promotion in India?

Blackberry introduced the concept of smartphone. We are reinventing it with the BlackBerry Z10. The PR strategy driving the promotions of the BlackBerry Z10 in India is focused around the fact that the device allows our users to keep on moving; it ensures they can unlock possibilities by turning mobile communications into mobile computing. 

The BlackBerry Z10 is about setting your imagination to work. It is about inspiring you to push yourself beyond the limits of what you have become used to. We have re-engineered, redesigned and reinvented not just the device, but the entire company. It symbolizes what the BlackBerry Z10 stands for: a complete transformation in the mobile experience.

There are a number of ways in which we will take this strategy forward – through a new breed of demanding users, iconic brand ambassadors, mobile application developers, support and funding for entrepreneurs in the mobility space, network operators and our retail partners. It is a 360 degree strategy. A considerable amount of the PR will go beyond the brand and integrate with the global mobile eco-system. The PR strategy, in a sense, goes beyond the consumer.

However, over the years, we have become well-entrenched in the enterprise segment across the world. Enterprise customers bring tremendous value to us. They are also early adopters and first movers in the mobility space and have come to trust us. Leveraging enterprise customers will be a key element in the PR strategy. But yes, the enterprise segment is going to be the biggest challenge as well as the most rewarding exercise in our PR plans.

Q.  Many equate a phone operating system to a religion – meaning it is increasingly difficult to convince users to switch. How can PR help literally evangelize your brand and cause conversions?

What you say is true. Today’s tech savvy consumer understands things like OS. Making them switch is not simple. But here are some facts: In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, our CEO Thorsten Heins said that the company had shipped 6 million smartphones during the last quarter, of which one million came from the BlackBerry Z10. This is despite the fact that the BB Z10 was available for barely a month in the quarter. There is more to those numbers than meets the eye. Many of the BB Z10 customers were from other smartphone platforms. This indicates that the PR for the BlackBerry Z10 is showing success. I won’t say all of it is the effect of PR. Much of it is because of positive word of mouth from real users who have put the BlackBerry Z10 through its paces and the device has stood up to their scrutiny.

PR must literally use this fact – that real users are satisfied; that real users are moving ahead thanks to the BlackBerry Z10; that real users are recommending the device to their peers and communities. PR must capture these stories and amplify them for users who are thinking of a switch, are dissatisfied with their current devices or are looking for their first smartphone.

Let me quickly explain why the BB10 makes a good argument to stop considering OS as the central focus of mobile computing. The future of mobility is not in connecting people to each other or connecting smart phones to each other. It is about connecting end points – the Internet of Things – and this is the focus of the BB10 platform architecture. We are headed towards a world where everything must connect to everything over diverse networks and across multiple systems and device environments – with a very high level of data security. Our PR strategy is geared to help users understand what the future of mobility is and how the BB10 platform is building and leading that future. And users already know our obsessive nature when it comes to security.

Q.  Your global CEO has made some comments recently criticizing Apple’s iOS and also saying that Samsung phones are not secure for enterprise use. Is this aggressive stance in taking on your competitors a culture that filters down the communications chain?

Our CEO, Thorsten Heins did not criticize anyone.  He only stated that the rate of innovation in our industry is so high that if you don’t innovate at that speed you can be replaced pretty quickly.

BlackBerry 10 itself, has been built from the ground up, and is a powerful new platform that will revolutionize the world of mobile computing.  It is designed for the multi-tasking and socially connected users who value secure partitioning of work and personal applications on their mobile device.  The BlackBerry 10 platform leverages its micro-kernel based architecture and BlackBerry’s proven security expertise of over a decade to provide security right down to the Core Operating System of the Mobile end point.

This is far superior to some competitive offerings in the market that are open and hence more vulnerable to security threats.

 Q.  Is the gap between advertising and PR budgets worrying or do you think it is a distraction?

That’s a good question! I don’t have a real answer to that. On some days I wake up thinking PR should have a larger budget and it is unfair that advertising gets the lion’s share. After all, PR needs to be out there, speaking to the target group, crystalizing their opinion, making them our ambassadors. And in today’s multi-channel world, it isn’t getting cheaper to reach out. But, honestly, on other days I feel there is merit in frugal PR. I often ask myself, what is it that we can do that doesn’t cost much but produces great results? Today’s tools permit you to achieve good results without embarrassingly huge budgets.

The debate between budgets for PR and advertising will continue. Every industry draws its own line between the two. And that line shifts based on economic conditions, industry situation, political environment, geography, product to be promoted, etc. There are far too many variables to be considered in PR to say with confidence: Yes, PR must get a larger budget than advertising (or the other way around).

Q.  How do you see the role of public affairs evolving in India?

We are a thriving nation. We are a nation of bright thinkers and entrepreneurs. We must begin to reduce the dependence we have on the government for everything.  We should encourage private-public partnerships. We need to campaign for such thinking, garner nation-wide support from the public for such initiatives.  Business leadership cannot take up the role of the government in public affairs, but it can help point out the lacunae in the system and push for a change in the social fabric.

Q. What do you think sets the Indian PR industry apart from other markets?

The Indian PR industry is evolving. It is quickly moving beyond the limited scope of media relations. It is in the happy situation of being able to learn from the experience of others globally and adopt the best practices. However, it needs to quickly localize those learnings, harden them, leverage them. India is showing a very high growth rate and the future of PR looks obviously bright. We have seen the emergence of specialized PR agencies in industries such as IT, hospitality, healthcare etc. We need more specialization and this opportunity is what sets apart the Indian PR industry from other markets – the opportunity for growth and specialization.

Interviewed by Kunal Pal for Image Management

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