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October 20, 2019,   9:26 AM

How BlackBerry Used Improv Comedy To Make Cybersecurity A More ‘Human’ Topic

Marty Swant

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Image Credit: Blackberry

BlackBerry wants to make data breaches a laughing matter.

To illustrate how even the smartest and most capable employees can make accidental mistakes that put sensitive information at risk, the Canadian company is taking a more “human” approach to the serious subject of cybersecurity. It’s not that Mark Wilson–who’s been CMO of the brand since 2017–doesn’t take threats lightly. Rather, he said an overwhelming majority of customers surveyed viewed their own staff as more of an accidental threat than an outside hacker.

According to research conducted by BlackBerry, 94% of chief security officers and other executives don’t trust their own employees with critical information. In fact, 72% suspected their employees were working around existing security measures. (For example, BlackBerry found that a nurse at a hospital sent X-ray images to a doctor via Snapchat because she was locked out of the company’s software.)

“As we started to drill into it,” Wilson tells Forbes. “We saw that employees are trying to do the right thing, but sometimes they make mistakes. They leave their phone in a cab or something that represents a security risks, but they’re not doing it out of malice.”

To promote its own security software, BlackBerry—which has pivoted from its earlier smartphone-making days to enterprise tech made for the era of self-driving cars and the Internet of Things—decided to humanize accidental errors. But instead of just passing a brief over to a creative agency to come up with a TV spot and some billboards or print ads, Blackerry worked with Oakland-based Funworks to hire improv comedians to create a campaign alongside BlackBerry teams ranging from marketing and tech to sales. The goal: to translate the technical side of security to something more relatable.

Working alongside nearly a dozen sketch and improv comics serving as outside strategists, Wilson recruited BlackBerry’s chief technology officer, some clients and some sales reps to attend the brainstorm session. Because the comedians didn’t know much about cybersecurity, they asked questions that an agency might otherwise not.  

“We had this great group asking questions and thinking about what it means to have your information be safe,” says Funworks Co-Founder and CEO Paul Charney. “When does it become vulnerable? And because you have these sketch comedians—we call them creative consumers—it forced the BlackBerry people to simplify things into different phrasing.

The campaign is just one part of BlackBerry’s overall process of reinventing itself in the iPhone era. Over the past few years, it’s debuted software related to connected cars, which Wilson says is now in more than 150 million vehicles. In early 2019, it announced the completion of acquiring the cybersecurity firm Cylance, which uses machine learning to detect cybersecurity threats in a range of devices. BlackBerry has also landed auto deals with major brands like Ford and Jaguar in hopes of making the most secure autonomous car. However, the turnaround isn’t necessary in a single direction. Last month, BlackBerry’s revenue fell short when it reported second quarter earnings for the company’s 2020 fiscal year.

“The key to this is how do you evoke emotion into something that can be at times a very dry topic,” Wilson says. “That’s kind of the fun of what we do. How do you break through a sea of sameness with something that’s an evolutionary or provocative point of view and that’s a very human point of view?”

According to Charney, the improv concept of saying “yes, and” to something allows people to build on a brainstorm idea before “tearing them down.” The process also helped get everyone from the company on the same idea from the beginning rather than BlackBerry’s marketing team having to sell it internally after-the-fact. That then led to anecdotes that the team hadn’t told before, which then led to the idea know cybersecurity isn’t just protecting from hackers, but it’s also preventing accidents by people who are trying to find workarounds for more formal processes.

This wasn’t the first time the improv strategy was implemented by Funworks, which was founded in 2015 by several veterans of the San Francisco-based agency Goodby, Silverstein and Partners. Past clients of the firm have included ESPN, Ubisoft, Zynga and REI. (Charney says the agency’s process is kind of like “having a beer in the shower.”)

In a sense, the process used by Funworks is a cousin of design-thinking theory, which allows people to develop ideas even while they’re still thinking them through. After they landed on BlackBerry’s strategy, Funworks used traditional actors in Texas to create a short TV spot that will run across various digital channels to reach CSOs and CIOs.

The sentiment of not trusting employees with sensitive information is something that BlackBerry is leaning into. According to Wilson, the company is adopting an ethos of a “zero trust environment,” where threats are both external and internal. He said every organization should adopt that philosophy when it comes to security, adding that BlackBerry’s own software makes it so that the “employee is the password” through biometric data.

The 30-second commercial itself isn’t over-the-top hilarious, nor is it anything destined to necessarily win a coveted Cannes Lion award. However, Wilson says the tone still sets BlackBerry apart from its competitors. And with BlackBerry’s traditional customer base of highly regulated industries like government and health care, they wanted to address something that “many, many industries want to talk about.”

“They laughed at it but also related to it,” Wilson says. “And that’s what we were trying to get to. We could share some scary numbers about the world, but if you can help protect the audience, we really though it hit at a more emotional level than some (competitors’) fear tactics do.”

For Charney, the comedy is just the medium for the message.

“I know it seems funny, but it’s more truthful,” he says. “But humor is just a tool to underscore a truth. And it’s only funny because they were so confident that this message will resonate with those CTOs and CEOs and it’s not too complicated to identify with.”



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