Individuality through handset colours

If silver was the new black and white has become the new silver, what colour will our handsets be in two year’s time? At our first MEX conference in September 2005, Sofia Svanteson of Ocean Observations gave an excellent presentation in which she highlighted the bland uniformity of the silver clamshells which dominated the handset market last year.

Today, there seems to be an increasing number of devices seeking to replicate the cool white styling epitomised by the iPod. It is not just in mobile telecoms either: my handheld games console, laptop and phone all look as if they’ve been painted with the same brush. The UK is currently awash with advertisements for BT’s new home hub, which combines a wide range of services in a single wireless gateway – guess what colour the box is? And for good measure, the accompanying handset is white too.

Fashion, by its very nature, creates uniformity. The process often starts with a ground-breaking product, an item which becomes a style icon – such as the iPod – and manufacturers then rush to reflect its design in their own offerings. Interestingly, it is often outside the industry in which the style icon is launched where this influence is felt most strongly. Mobile telecoms design currently owes a lot to digital music players and – strange as it may seem – automotive design. While manufacturers competing directly with something like the iPod recognise the need to differentiate by varying their design, companies which are not directly involved in that industry are much more inclined to copy the successful design elements and leverage off their popularity.

I am often frustrated to hear industry pundits calling for the mobile telecoms business to replicate the business models seen in other sectors. At every mobile conference, there is always someone suggesting manufacturers adopt the same strategy as watch makers or automotive giants. While there are certainly lessons to be learnt from these businesses, such requests fail to recognise that the mobile experience is unique unto itself and can actually be one of the driving forces of product design innovation.

The current problem of design similarity traces its roots to the commercial strategy departments of many manufacturers. It is this mentality which has caused numerous handset vendors to respond to Motorola’s success with thin products by launching their own imitations, initiating in the process a ‘millimetres’ war in which ergonomic requirements have become secondary to shaving a few decimal points off a competitor’s ‘thinnest’ offering. Few manufacturers are capable of creating new demand through design innovation, the rest are merely copying their approach and diluting the market.

This brings me back to the issue of handset colours. In Japan, almost every handset model is launched in a range of colours as diverse as luminous green and soft pink. Manufacturers have their own palettes which enable them to create differentiated value. As crushing as this may be for an industry obsessed with selling new technology, many customers buy products simply because they like the colour.

In contrast, most Western manufacturers have taken a different approach, offering handsets which supported ‘snap-on’ fascias to customise the device. This has been successful in certain market segments, particularly among younger customers, but it lacks the slickness and visual appeal which comes from seeing a product on the shelf or in an advertisement and knowing you want it simply because it looks great.

Offering several different colours of the same handset model does require a slightly more delicate approach to inventory management – gauging demand for the different flavours can be a complex process – but the benefits are potentially significant. There is also the reverse psychology behind the growth in demand for colours which sell out. If there are no bright red models left, suddenly everyone sees them as an exclusive opportunity to be different and demand grows.

Colour can also be used to identify with particular causes: Motorola’s red RAZR and SLVR products, which are tied to the Bono-led charity campaign, are a good example of this.

For those of you who appreciate comparisons with other industries, the mountain biking business offers an excellent analogy. Mountain bikes come in all shapes and sizes, offering a wide range of different features for different styles of riding and price pojnts – in this was they are not dissimilar to mobile phones. However, there is also huge variety in the paint jobs available and even the most experienced riders will admit to choosing their bikes based on their appreciation of the manufacturer’s colour scheme.

The human brain places great importance on interpretation of colour. It plays a key role in the way we respond to our environmemt. It helps us express individuality and, in that way, increasing the range of handset colours will move the industry a step closer to the goal of individualised device design.

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