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Mobile Branding: Culture as Technology

By Madanmohan Rao

In an industry of furiously-paced innovation and high customer churn, the battle for market share in the mobile world is also translating into the “battle of brands” to create the most customer loyalty.

Creating a positive customer experience across the years and from one model to the next – as well as promoting the right kind of “buzz” and ownership association via catchy ad campaigns – are becoming key elements of mobile branding success.

“You can tell what a culture values by what it has in its bags and pockets,” according to John Agar, author of Constant Touch: A Global History of the Mobile Phone. By historical comparison, the pocketwatch was a rarity in the 17th century, but become an expensive status symbol of business activity for industrial professionals in the 18th century – and is now owned by the majority of the population in the 21st century.

“Pocket watches provide the closest historical parallel to the remarkable rise of the mobile cellular phone in our own times,” observes Agar. Like pocketwatches, cellphones too started off as expensive status symbols and cost as much as a car, but are now owned by over a billion people worldwide.

While one aspect of the wireless environment has been mobility, another important aspect is the material culture. Successive generations of mobile phones display superior design, elegance, style and branding, and are fast becoming fashion carriers. Cellphones have also been featured regularly in media products like films (eg. Wall Street, The Matrix, and James Bond movies).

According to a report released in September 2004 by the firm Research and Markets, Asian mobile phone manufacturers like Samsung and Panasonic are overtaking established leaders Nokia and Ericsson in customer experience measurement (CEM) studies. Samsung is ranked as the No. 1 mobile brand in Asia in the survey conducted by Research and Markets, and Samsung users have rated the Samsung website as having the most value-add. Nokia, however, leads in ease of use of interface.

Motorola users, once the most loyal, are “finding it hard to stick with the brand,” according to the survey, which also revealed that the typical Asian mobile subscriber now owns a wireless phone model for 14 months, compared to 18 months in 2001.

CEM studies conducted by brand analysts and research firms typically use a varied weighting scheme for parameters like performance, features, coolness and overall look and feel of the handphone.

Leading mobile manufacturers face stiff competition from not just one another but potentially from commodity manufacturers of non-branded phones sold via mobile operators (eg. Audiovox phones sold by Vodafone). Currently, the continuous pace of innovation in add-on features like music and photography are postponing the emergence of mass-market commodity players in the high end of the market, but they are emerging in the lower end of the market (as with other categories like basic DVD players).

The experience of Motorola is an interesting case study in this regard. Motorola, eager to bounce back to the early lead position it held in the era of the analog cellular market, is aggressively rebranding its products with a catchy advertising campaign featuring “Moto Photo,” “Surround Moto,” “Gossip Moto,” “Metal Moto” and “Roto Moto” posters and billboards. It posted a 10.2 percent margin in Q2 2004, regarded as its best margin in nearly a decade.

Motorola's newer models -- the E398 with 3D stereo surround sound, the E680 with RealPlayer software and MPEG 4 video playback, and the model C650 camera phone with the embedded MotoMixer and MP3 ringtones – are trying to anticipate and tap into consumers' evolving music needs.

“Technology is increasingly becoming a part of culture,” observes Geoffrey Frost, Chief Brand Officer at Motorola, the first major corporation to formally create such an important marketing post in 2003. “We see ourselves as an experience design company,” said Frost, during a presentation called “MotoGenesis” at the recent Global Brand Forum in Singapore.

The name “Motorola” itself comes from a combination of the words “motor car” and “victrola,” reflecting the company’s early offerings in the car radio market. “We are creating an entire tag language, not just tag lines,” said Frost. The company now heavily uses the byline “Intelligence everywhere,” and is creating a consistent brand voice, consumer language and product imagery.

The three key disruptive technologies of our times are digitisation, broadband and embeddedness, observes Frost. Motorola’s strategy is to pitch the mobile phone as a “wireless entertainment portal.”

Motorola recently struck a major deal with MTV International, which agreed to create new wireless content exclusively for Motorola. “I asked the head of MTV: how would you like to be on five times as many screens? And it is not just about the number of screens, but the more personal nature of interaction involved,” recalls Frost. The company has also struck a deal with Apple to create the “mini i-Pod,” for people who want the convenience of music on the go with their cellphone.

To its credit, Motorola certainly has been a pioneer in a number of innovative fronts. Motorola developed the “Handie-Talkie” and “Walkie-Talkie” during World War II. It was also an early mover in the “clamshell” design of cellphones, an area overlooked until very recently by other market leaders like Nokia.

It has also evolved specific branding campaigns for industry verticals like the police forces (“Moto Prepared”) and fire/emergency crews (“Moto Response”). Motorola has received an array of creative awards, including an Effie award in 2000 for advertising effectiveness.

But while it is taking rapid strides in the digital GSM and 3-G worlds, Motorola must also face the fact that there are other areas where it needs to guard against new innovators.

“Why did Motorala not invent the Blackberry?” asked brand guru Al Ries provocatively to Frost during a panel discussion at the Global Brand Forum.


Madanmohan Rao is the editor of "Asia Unplugged" (www.indiasage.com/asia_unplugged.asp) and "The Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook" (www.tatamcgrawhill.com/digital_solutions/madan)


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