In my last corporate job I was given a Dell computer, a Blackberry and a flat warning from the IT manager: don’t try to use those Apple toys for work, I was told, they are not secure and we don’t support them.
Blackberry and Dell were omnipotent in the corporate world. Shares in the Canadian maker of BlackBerry smartphones peaked in August of 2007 at $236. Seven months earlier, in January, Apple had introduced the iPhone at San Francisco’s Moscone Center.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer actually laughed at the iPhone. “It doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard,” he said.
Executives at BlackBerry, then called Research in Motion, were equally unmoved. They believed its core business customers cared more about security and efficient communication than having the full Internet in their pocket. They fatefully decided to let Apple focus on the general-use smartphone market, while Blackberry would continue selling products to business and government customers that bought the devices for employees.
Six years later, BlackBerry’s stock dropped to just over ten dollars a share while iPhone shipments surpassed BlackBerry shipments in the enterprise market. And as worldwide sales of PCs collapsed, the once high-flier Dell retreated into private ownership in 2013 to figure out its future in a post-PC world.
The iPhone's incredible rise in the enterprise market is almost entirely the result of end-user preference and pressure applied to corporate buyers who, at first, reluctantly opened the door to the revolution by introducing optional Bring-Your-Own-Device policies. As corporate contracts expired the BYOD policy gave way to corporate mandates in favor of the iPhone. The change was so swift and complete that it left Blackberry executives gasping.
"We're grappling with who we are because we can't be who we used to be anymore, which sucked...It's not clear what the hell to do," said one of the company's former CEOs, Jim Balsille, at the time.*
The rise of the iPhone at the enterprise level at the expense of Blackberry is easy to dismiss as part of the Apple phenomenon that carries all before. In truth, it offers an urgent lesson for all B2B brand executives who believe their natural business constituency of the corporate buyer is insulated from the market at large.
The corporate bridge that supported one-way traffic between the enterprise provider and its end users has given way to cloud-based two-way traffic; end users have become Prosumers – self-directed professional consumers with specialist needs who know what they want and where to find it.
Prosumer isn’t a new term. It’s been around the marketing world for years, but in today’s world of the social web - tools such as Twitter, blogs, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn - it has taken on a new importance that business leaders and marketers can’t ignore, not least because Prosumers are being increasingly targeted by niche brands offering focused, easy-to-buy, high quality services with engaging online experiences. They are enabling professionals to side step the tools and services provided by their organization, thereby eroding their value. Eventually, when it’s time to renew those corporate contracts, usage will be scrutinized and value will be questioned. The voice of the Prosumer will have been heard.
The meaning of Prosumer as a term has, thus, changed from “professional consumer” to brand advocate. Rather than simply consuming products, professionals have become an influential B2B brand constituency that B2B marketers must not just acknowledge but include and embrace in their brand strategy.
Today’s B2B marketing reality is that the buyer isn’t just one individual gatekeeper but a complex constituency of segments with particular rational and emotional needs. Rational needs can be met with segment specific messaging. The brand, however, has to play an emotional level that is relevant and compelling to the entire constituency, Prosumers included.
* Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry by Jacquie McNish.