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Frank Boulben joins RIM, solidifies its future

Marketing trumps operations

Research In Motion has two new chiefs around the executive round table, but one of them, in particular, wears a bit more weight on his shoulders than the other.

With this week's appointment of Kristian Tear as Chief Operating Officer and Frank Boulben as Chief Marketing Officer, CEO Thorsten Heins fills two significant gaps in his leadership team as he prepares the company for the upcoming release of BlackBerry 10-based smartphones.

By all accounts, Heins has chosen well. One quick read of Tear's resume makes it clear he's eminently qualified for the role. His broad and deep experience across multiple tiers of the industry — including his most recent role as Sony Mobile Communications EVP and leadership positions with Ericsson in Europe, Asia and Latin America — should give observers and investors alike sufficient confidence that the company's day-to-day survival is in very good hands.

Marketing beats ops, for now

So no offense to Mr. Tear, but he isn't the big story this week. Whether he likes it or not, Mr. Boulben now sits in the hottest hot-seat in Waterloo as he faces down RIM's biggest challenge of all: Getting stakeholders ranging from enterprise buyers and consumers to investors and analysts to chime back into RIM's message. The company's slide from grace hasn't just shaved profitability and market share points. It's also eroded the BlackBerry brand's once vaunted sense of trust.

Recent history suggests Mr. Boulben could have his hands full, as RIM's ability to stay on-message has been an issue for well over a year. The CMO slot has been unfilled since March 2011, when Keith Pardy announced his departure just as the company was gearing up to launch the PlayBook tablet.

In the interim, the company's marketing message has continued to be somewhat fractured, often overshadowed by the fireworks associated with its continued market share slide and the battle for leadership change that ultimately led to the departure of Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie from their co-CEO roles in January. Heins has repeatedly identified this role as a key priority since taking his own corner office seat four months ago.

RIM's Be Bold campaign, designed to sustain demand for BlackBerry 7-based devices while it prepares its next-generation BlackBerry 10 platform for release later this year, has at times seemed out of place. It's difficult to sell existing products largely perceived as stale when you're also hyping the ones you're launching later this year.

Although the campaign itself has been relatively well received, it underscores the difficulty RIM faces in marketing itself through an extended transition period between old products and new. If Mr. Tear, who is responsible for research and development, global sales, manufacturing and supply chain for all handhelds and services, plays his cards right, he'll never again put his marketing chief in that tenuous position of having nothing new to sell.

A grizzled veteran

RIM's new CMO has faced adversity before. Most recently, he served as EVP of strategy, marketing and sales for LightSquared, a U.S. company that tried to launch a hybrid terrestrial wireless and satellite-based 4G network. When the U.S. Air Force, which owns the Global Positioning System constellation of satellites, complained that LightSquared's plans threatened to interfere with certain GPS services, it touched off a crisis that ultimately scuttled the company's go-to-market plans and pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy. The cynic might say he failed. The realist instead concludes he's got experience leading a challenged company through next-to-impossible market conditions.

Mr. Boulben, who was also Vodafone Group's global director of commercial strategy and Orange Group's EVP of brand and consumer marketing, has crucial vendor and carrier experience which could help him rebuild carrier relationships scarred by RIM's slide. His Euro-centric carrier exposure, in particular, fits with Heins's global focus and gives RIM credibility in selling its message to carriers considering abandoning ship as consumers look elsewhere.

Beyond phones and tablets

Mr. Boulben is also in an ideal position to sell carriers on BlackBerry 10's key value propositions — an operating system that handles rich functionality just like its competitors, but with an efficient back-end that minimizes congestion — as he reshapes RIM's message for a broader audience. Heins has also been hinting at the technology's promise to extend into automotive and other non-traditional markets, a carrot that could give Boulben even more ammunition and buy RIM some time with this crucial audience.

Both of these appointments serve as further evidence that Heins is leaning toward deep, broad industry experience, and is sticking with people he knows and trusts. Operationally, both Boulbens and Tear will be challenged to work in lockstep - one to build messaging that drives demand, the other to implement an organizational infrastructure that gives the message-makers something inspiring to sell. It's a tall order, but RIM finally has the right people in place to make it happen.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.