Like a sports car?!

Nokia is running a series of TV advertisements in the UK for its 8800 handset. They are heavy on close-up imagery, providing shadowy glimpses of the handset’s curves and the texture of its metallic casing. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the campaign for the BMW 5 series a couple of years ago or Audi’s current TV slots.

This association with all things automotive is deliberate. Indeed, the voice over refers directly to this, comparing the 8800 with ‘sports cars’ or a piece of ‘fine jewellery’. There has been talk within the industry for many years about immitating the emotive advertising techniques of the car business and the fashion industry. The logic goes something like this: if we can get customers to feel as passionate about their phones as they do about their cars (particularly in a petrol-obsessed culture like the UK), we will be able to charge premium prices and tie-in customer loyalty to a particular brand.

Of course, these are very valid objectives for any marketing department. However, I wonder whether mobile telephony is now a sufficiently emotive category in its own right to play to these strengths without feeling the need to masquerade as the ‘poor relation’ of the automotive or jewellery business?

As I’ve discussed in previous MEX articles, Motorola has gone some way towards achieving this with its RAZR products (NEC, incidently, can now lay claim to the title of thinnest handset with its new L1). Nokia’s Nseries is also an attempt to establish a premium brand for mobile telephony, using some of the experience from the Nokia-backed luxury handset manufacturer Vertu. At the far end of the scale is Mobiado, manufacturer of high-priced handsets with a wooden casings.

I can’t lay claim to any formal training in brand development, but surely it is only a matter of time before the highly paid marketing consultants retained by firms like Nokia realise mobile telephony offers unique characteristics which can be just as compelling for customers as a tenuous link with luxury cars?

It reminds me of a TV advertisement run by Palm a few years ago. Almost by accident, Palm found that executives around the world were beaming their business cards to each other – it had become something of a cult phenomenon – not least because it was so easy: just hold down the ‘Address Book’ button and your card was beamed to your colleague. A smart marketeer at Palm realised they had a unique capability and set out to communicate this feature to customers.

The result was a TV advertisement featuring a man and a woman sitting on separate trains, facing each other through the window as they prepare to pull out of the station. Eye contact is established and the flirting commences, but the glass prevents an actual conversation. As the trains pull away, they both pull out their Palms and just manage to exchange their virtual business cards through the window…

The advertisement received critical acclaim from both the technology and creative industries. It communicated beautifully with Palm’s target market and emphasised a uniquely ‘Palm’ experience.

Which brings me back to the 8800. The phone is a superb piece of engineering and no doubt has several unique features. However, claiming to be inspired by sports cars or jewellery will do nothing to convey these characteristics to potential customers. It may help sell some phones initially, but it won’t build long-term brand equity for Nokia.

I hope to see plenty of discussion of how marketing impacts the overall mobile experience at the MEX conference. We are lucky to have Will Harris, the man who led the original development of the Orange brand and later masterminded the BT Cellnet/O2 rebranding, as chairman of the ‘Understanding the customer‘ session on Day One.

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