NPR’s Planet Money podcast recently did an episode on Ford’s luxury car brand Lincoln, and how far it’s fallen. “Can Lincoln be cool again?” Apparently there was a time when the Lincoln Town Car was cool, finding its way into Frank Sinatra lyrics, etc. Today it’s just the ubiquitous car driven by mid-range car services. If you’ve ever walked the streets of midtown Manhattan at night looking like a tourist, some creepy guy in a seven-year-old Town Car has pulled up and offered you a ride to your hotel for a flat fee.
Ford is systematically trying to resurrect the Lincoln brand as a viable competitor to BMW, Audi, and Lexus. Unfortunately for Ford, the company has to do a lot more than simply build a good car that’s worthy of the price tag. The brand has been moribund for so long that it’s aged out of key demographics. People entering their thirties and just starting to earn enough income to think about buying a luxury car don’t think of Lincoln as an option. They’re looking at the brands that bankers, lawyers and Hollywood types are driving. Lincoln is not on that list.
I think tech companies can face the same challenge if they don’t keep their brands competitive. RIM is starting to develop a Lincoln problem with BlackBerry. Whole generations of smarpthone buyers are emerging who have never even held a BlackBerry. My two-year-old niece knows how to work the touchscreen of an iPhone or Android device. If you put a BlackBerry with a qwerty keyboard in her hands, she’d put it to her ear and say “Hello?” Then she’d throw it away and start playing with the iPhone again. That’s a heavy-handed metaphor for what’s happening with kids entering the workforce. In a BYOD world, how many 22-year-olds are going to bring a BlackBerry to work?
Postponing the BlackBerry 10 OS only compounds the problem. Some coupon web site with a silly name (CouponCodes4u.com) sent me some flash poll data aimed at gauging consumer reaction to the BlackBerry 10 news. The site polled 1,451 Americans aged 21-35. Twenty-one? How many 21-year-olds have even considered a BlackBerry?
No surprise that 29% of these people felt that BlackBerry products were not “as well designed or built” as they used to be. (Don’t young kids think that about most American cars these days?) And 59% of those surveyed said they didn’t own a BlackBerry. Why not? Well 52% of those who don’t own one cited the lack of personal and business apps, such as Instagram and Angry Birds while 53% also said that there “was nothing special” that the BlackBerry could offer them. Does that sound like a Lincoln Town Car problem? It does to me.
RIM isn’t dealing with an “If you build it, they will come” situation here. Even if they get a great OS out to the market next year and it draws rave reviews from gadget blogs, there is no market for it. BlackBerry loyalists (those few who remain) will buy one, but you’re not going to win new customers from Apple and Android. It’s going to require more than a good product. Aaaaaand it’s going to require a brand revival. And I’m not talking about easy gestures like sponsoring the pre-game show for the NBA Finals or hiring Jennifer Lopez to drive around in a Fiat. It’s going to require a fundamental invigoration of the brand. Convince those pesky millennials that BlackBerry isn’t their granddad’s smartphone.