Getting your product right on the first try is a feat that even some of today’s biggest companies could not pull off in their infancy. Did you know that YouTube was originally envisioned as a dating website? Or that the popular messaging service for companies, Slack, was initially built as an internal tool by what was then a game development studio called Tiny Speck?
While it’s possible to make drastic changes to your core product early on — while you are still figuring things out and while general awareness of your brand is low — there are some brands that found themselves with no choice but to switch things up, despite being strongly established with consumers.
As you’re developing your own brand, growing awareness, and building connections with consumers — there might be a time when you’re forced to change your core product offering in order to stay competitive or, perhaps, just to seize an opportunity.
In order to help you with the hurdles that this process presents, let’s take a look at three companies that found themselves in a similar situation — brands that completely reinvented who they were — and how they made a success of that transformation.
So without further ado, let’s begin.
BlackBerry: From Mobile Phone Giant To CyberSecurity Specialists
Remember BlackBerry? Before iPhone completely turned the mobile industry on its head, this Canadian brand was one of the leading names in the industry.
Founded in the 80s and originally known as Research In Motion (RIM), the brand was the first wireless data technology company in North America, releasing a range of technology solutions until it found success with pagers in the 90s. The first device to feature what would become the brand’s icon QWERTY keyboard was a two-way pager — the 850 — released in 1999 and nicknamed BlackBerry because of the keyboard’s resemblance to the drupelets of a blackberry.
Into the 2000s, BlackBerry became a leading mobile phone brand but it wasn’t until 2006 that it began launching products specifically targeted at consumers — until this point it was mainly focused on selling to businesses.
Even after the release of the iPhone in 2007, BlackBerry continued to dominate the market, reaching its peak “in 2010, controlling 43% of the market share” and boasting 80 million users. In this period, BlackBerry was hugely popular and was well known “for its exceptional security, which made it very popular with business”. US President Barrack Obama was known to have one — indeed, commentators identified it as part of his progressive image.
But BlackBerry struggled to compete. As iPhone and Samsung both innovated and brought new ideas to the industry, BlackBerry played catch-up. And while it did launch touch-screen models, its focus “on enterprise over consumer tastes” ultimately resulted in phones that had fewer features and that developers did not build apps for.
But this was not the end of BlackBerry’s story…
BlackBerry continues on to this day as a cybersecurity specialist, as well as a developer of operating systems used in cars, “air-traffic control and medical devices.” Indeed, the brand never truly committed to targeting consumers, and while its stubborn focus on enterprise clients may have hastened its exit from the mobile device market, it allowed BlackBerry to comfortably pivot back into a brand that served businesses.
The brand had invested heavily in the security of its devices and was well known by consumers for leading the way in this regard. So, its transformation into a cybersecurity brand allowed it to transfer a lot of the associations from its time as a developer of phones.
Interestingly, despite a complete transformation of its business model, BlackBerry did not choose to rebrand, retaining the same look and logo as used during its time as the market leader in the mobile sector. This is a powerful reminder that, actually, rebrands are not always necessary. And, even if you’re changing as thoroughly as BlackBerry did, as long as you're relying on the same brand associations and hoping to leverage the same emotional connections, you don’t necessarily need to abandon your old brand altogether.
Amazon: Online Book Seller To Streaming And Cloud Computing
Unlike BlackBerry, which changed its product offering as a response to its failures, Amazon is a brand that has evolved over time and transformed as a result of huge successes. You might be surprised to learn that the bulk of Amazon’s revenue doesn’t actually come from eCommerce or video streaming at all but from its Amazon Web Service (AWS), which “provides the critical infrastructure for an assortment of applications like data storage and networking”.
But before we go into more detail, let’s start at the beginning.
Founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos, Amazon started out as an online bookseller. Bezos had read a report that foretold the coming explosion of the internet economy and, eager to capitalize on the moment, chose books as the basis for his new eCommerce business.
His selection of books wasn’t completely random but informed by “the large worldwide market for literature, the low price that could be offered for books, and the tremendous selection of titles that were available in print.”
From here, Amazon went from strength to strength, expanding its product range beyond books in 1998 when it added music CDs, toys, electronics, and tools. Two years later, the company “introduced a new service allowing individual sellers and other outside merchants to peddle their products” on the Amazon website, alongside their own branded items.
The business survived the bursting of the dot-com bubble but did not become profitable until the end of 2003 as it continued to focus on expansion. Indeed, expansion is something that defines Amazon’s strategy and brand identity.
Since 2000, even before the launch of many of its sub-divisions, the brand has been fronted by that yellow smirking arrow that links A to Z. Some of these forays into new products, services, and technologies have made sense — the launch of its own e-reader, the Kindle, for example, was a logical step for a brand strongly associated with books, While the Amazon Alexa allowed the brand to integrate its shopping services more seamlessly into consumers’ lives.
But what about launching its own rival to Netflix or cloud computing? How on earth did that happen?
The official line is that “a video service in Prime is one more reason for people to stick with Amazon’s membership program” — in essence, it adds value to the total package and encourages loyalty. But thinking of Amazon Prime Video as nothing but an added extra doesn’t quite fit. If this was the case, why has the company invested so much money into creating its own programs and movies, going as far as creating one of the most expensive TV shows of all time in its “Rings Of Power” series?
There’s some speculation that the brand’s video offering is a long-term strategy, in which Amazon will use “ads on Prime Video and its other online video sites to get us interested in new products” that can they can sell — allowing them to “encompass the entire life span of shopping, from “Huh, that looks interesting” to clicking buy.
It’s completely possible that the brand’s pivoting into a producer of films and television is simply a passion project of founder Jeff Bezos (or vanity project, depending on your perspective). However, the company’s hugely successful sub-division, Amazon Web Services, arose from a much more organic source.
Back in 2000 when the company launched a new feature that allowed external merchants to sell from Amazon.com, it needed “a set of common infrastructure services” to make the whole endeavor possible, but developers soon realized the solutions being created could have bigger applications.
At an executive retreat in 2003, an exercise was undertaken to identify what the brand’s “core competencies” were. As part of this process, “they realized they had also become quite good at running infrastructure services like compute, storage and database”. From here on, the core services behind AWS were gradually developed, creating what is in essence, “an operating system of sorts for the internet.”
Ultimately, Amazon has been able to reinvent itself again and again over the years — dipping its fingers into manifold pies and it has done this while retaining a single recognizable brand under which all of these sub-divisions exist. Its ability to do this is partly the result of a brand that was built with expansion in mind and that has fearlessly sought to integrate itself deeper and deeper into consumers' lives.
Nokia: From Finnish Mill To Mobile Phones To Telecommunications Infrastructure
Many of us will probably think of Nokia and remember the iconic 3310 mobile phones, one of the most successful mobiles of all time. But Nokia is a brand that has been on a long and wild journey that begins way back in 1865!
Without going into too much detail — there simply isn’t time to cover it all! — Nokia began life as a Pulp Mill near the town of Nokia, near Tampere, Finland. It was then part of the Russian Empire and, through a series of mergers and acquisitions leading up to the 1960s, the Nokia Corporation was formed with four main wings: forestry, cable, rubber, and electronics.
Yet more acquisitions followed, but most important was the purchase of Mobira in the 1980s, a mobile telephony company, which would become the foundation of the brand’s mobile phone business.
Flash forward to the 2000s and Nokia was one of the biggest brands in the mobile market — thanks in large part to the huge success of its 3310 model and a range of features that were uncommon for phones at the time, such as the video game Snake. But the emergence of competitors such as BlackBerry, Apple, and Samsung chipped away at Nokia’s dominance of the mobile market. In 2013, Microsoft purchased the mobile device and services part of the corporation, leaving the remainder of the company to focus on mobile networks.
Like BlackBerry, Nokia was able to leverage its huge consumer-focused brand and pivot into a B2B business that sells telecom equipment to networks. It’s a move that demonstrates how a brand’s core values and the associations that consumers develop can be passed on through different iterations of the brand in question, serving different target audiences and supporting variant business strategies.
As demonstrated by Nokia, businesses aren’t always clear-cut organizations founded with an unchanging guiding principle. In fact, most businesses evolve over time as they are acquired or make acquisitions, develop new services, and streamline their operations to cut away unprofitable activities.
These three examples demonstrate that a brand has the ability to carry a business through multiple changes if its able to reflect a series of consistent values that can support different activities and audiences.
In the case of Nokia and BlackBerry, both businesses pivoted into specialties that were strongly associated with their brand already, while Amazon had the foresight to bake the far-reaching corporation it has become into its brand from very early on in its journey.