It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a floundering social media marketing campaign!
Research In Motion Ltd. was attempting to reassure the public on Tuesday that it is not hanging its marketing strategy on a cartoon team of corporate superheroes that were introduced via Twitter last week.
After an executive shakeup last week that saw Thorstein Heins replace the founding co-CEOs at RIM, the company pledged that its priority would be to revamp its marketing efforts and get consumers excited about its BlackBerry handsets again.
But what appeared to be its first effort at the new marketing direction had more of a kryptonite effect, weakening an already hobbled brand. The Bold Team appeared in a graphic posted on the corporate Twitter account and its blog late last week.
The big-eyed team – whose superhero bandanas miraculously stayed up despite their lack of noses – were a representation of the responses the BlackBerry maker had received to its request for fans to send their New Year's resolutions. (RIM was a sponsor of the Dick Clark New Year's Eve broadcast in the United States) Gogo Girl, Justin Steele, Max Stone, and Judy Foreal each represented qualities common to the resolutions (adventurers, for example, or achievers.)
The cartoon campaign was roundly mocked online, where even BlackBerry fans viewed the infographic as an embarrassment.
"RIM has lost touch with reality," one reader commented on a Blackberry fan forum on Tuesday.
"RIM unveils costumed superhero mascots, everyone stuck with a Blackberry feels even less cool," Twitter user @nickmendez wrote on the social networking site.
"Your super hero Bold Team sucks. Please hire a better marketing team. You make me hate my Bold more and more every day," @stikkypaolo tweeted.
Also on Tuesday, a blogger on winsource.com, a site for Windows phone enthusiasts, posted a re-imagined version of the cartoon. Beside the original Bold Team, they presented The Old Team – a decidedly non-dynamic duo of out-of-shape older gentlemen in ill-fitting spandex.
On Tuesday, the company posted an update on the blog explaining that the cartoon was "just intended to be a bit of fun."
"The animated foursome on Inside BlackBerry was an infographic for our blog, not an ad," spokesperson Rebecca Freiburger said in an e-mail.
There is a danger for companies putting themselves out to the social media sphere. Just two weeks ago, McDonald's Corp. got a taste of this when it solicited Twitter users to share their love of the restaurant chain under the topic #McDStories. The "hashtag" topic became a forum for ruthless criticisms of the food, including one user who claimed that its fast food burrito turned him vegetarian for an entire year.
"If you're sending out a hashtag, you're giving people license to say whatever the heck they want," said Patrick Gladney, director of research and insights with Social Media Group in Toronto. "…That's always going to be a risk in social media. For brands, it's about how do you recover from that – because brands are going to make mistakes."
"There's a presumption that, simply because they're using these [social media]/note> tools, that they're hip and groovy and cool," said Richard Carmichael, principal at Toronto firm Frank Ideas and Execution, which focuses on social media marketing. "There's an awful lot of that, goes around … the authenticity doesn't ring true."
RIM is right to try to connect with fans, who have the power to help the brand recover from a difficult year, Mr. Carmichael added. But marketers need to recognize that the Internet and social media are places where corporate messaging is not necessarily welcome, and need to craft their social media campaigns carefully.
And it's not the first time a company has tried to use superheroes in its marketing – Visa did it a few years back, but actually used real characters as opposed to invented and branded crime fighters.
The infographic itself reads like RIM's wish for itself after a rough number of months and a tumultuous start to the year: "Four Bold characters … are bravely stepping out of 2011 and into 2012 filled with unlimited possibilities," it stated. Observers – and investors – are still waiting for more details on the company's new marketing direction, and whether it will save the day.