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BlackBerry and Alicia Keys: The duet that didn’t sell

Thorsten Heins introduces singer Alicia Keys as the 'global creative director' during the launch the BlackBerry 10 launch in New York.

SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS

BlackBerry Ltd. has snuffed out its partnership with the Girl on Fire.

The Waterloo, Ont., company said Thursday it is parting ways with singer and celebrity Alicia Keys on Jan. 30, one year after she took on the role of "global creative director" to accompany the launch of the BlackBerry 10 smartphone. A spokesperson for Ms. Keys said the contract was always intended to last for one year.

Ms. Keys was hired as part of a push by the company to win back consumers after millions – including Ms. Keys – ditched their BlackBerrys in favour of Apple and Android smartphones. Her compensation and BlackBerry's sponsorship of her "Girl on Fire" tour added up to more than $1-million (U.S.), said sources familiar with the partnership.

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But the product launch failed and the company pulled back from the consumer market last fall to focus on corporate and government (enterprise) customers. It was one of several wrenching changes in 2013 that included a failed auction, a management overhaul, inventory writedown and a severe downsizing.

"If the primary focus is on enterprise, then having an entertainer as spokesperson doesn't really make sense," said independent telecom industry analyst Jack Gold.

Things got off to a bumpy start: Less than two weeks after the BlackBerry 10 launch, Ms. Keys apparently tweeted from an Apple iPhone.

Ms. Keys later claimed her Twitter account had been hacked and that she stopped using her iPhone while working for BlackBerry.

Observers questioned what she contributed to BlackBerry. Last April, then-chief marketing officer Frank Boulben insisted that the company wasn't just following the trend of giving formal job titles to celebrities and said Ms. Keys had sat in on several marketing meetings and even presented her own PowerPoint slides. For her part, Ms. Keys said at the launch that her job would involve working "closely with the app designers, developers, content creators, the retailers, the carriers to really explore the platform and create ideas for its future."

Ms. Keys did support some of the company's marketing efforts. She promoted company scholarships for women and was featured in a Verizon contest to promote the BlackBerry brand. She spoke and sang at several BlackBerry-sponsored events. She told a company conference last May in Orlando: "If anything I've learned so far in my position at BlackBerry it's that the right people with the right tools can create amazing things and endless opportunities."

A source familiar with the situation said the partnership "never really got off the ground in the way it was intended" and there was little for her to do once it became evident by summer that BlackBerry's consumer-oriented Z10 was a poor seller, prompting a company-wide strategic review. By late fall, "none of the people that brought her to the company were there any more," the source added.

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Ms. Keys' role "never made sense to me, even last year when BlackBerry was focused on the consumer," said Dom Caruso, president of advertising agency Leo Burnett Canada. "Whenever a celebrity is chosen for any role, the critical thing is that people have to be able to see there's a credible link between the celebrity and the brand. U2 and Bono's partnership with Apple made sense because Apple was focused on music. And it was believable that U2 would think Apple was the coolest tech brand in music. With Keys, the credibility link wasn't there in either direction."

Ms. Keys didn't mention BlackBerry in a Dec. 22 note to fans posted on her website at the end of her tour. Little wonder, given it was the one blemish during a period that saw her score several award nominations for her music, launch her own line of Reebok sneakers and solidify her status as a global celebrity.

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About the Author

Sean Silcoff joined The Globe and Mail in January, 2012, following an 18-year-career in journalism and communications. He previously worked as a columnist and Montreal correspondent for the National Post and as a staff writer at Canadian Business Magazine, where he was project co-ordinator of the magazine's inaugural Rich 100 list. More

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