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Nokia, Microsoft and AT&T hold their breath for Lumia 900 smartphone launch

April 9, 2012

Like me, perhaps, you missed one of this year’s most critical product launches. That’s because, for reasons still not entirely apparent, it took place on Easter Sunday.

Never mind that though. All the most influential tech reviewers are agreed: the Nokia Lumia 900 is undoubtedly one of the finest smartphones money can buy, with its big, 4.3in screen, intuitive operating system, 8 megapixel rear camera and VGA front-facing cam, not to mention 4G LTE data capability. And at the astonishing price of only $99 (terms and conditions apply, 2-year contract only, sorry rest-of-the-world, you’ll just have to wait and see…), it looks like a snip.

But will it be? The Lumia’s significance lies not so much in it technological prowess as who’s behind it.

This may be the first and only chance for Nokia, Microsoft and AT&T to break the iPhone’s increasingly assured stranglehold over the sector. Nokia, once hailed the world’s leading mobile phone manufacturer, has so far made almost no impact in the dynamic smartphone sector dominated by Apple and Google/Android. Microsoft, developer of the admired but definitely connoisseur-only Windows Phone 7.5 operating system, has so far lacked a suitable vehicle to gatecrash the market. And AT&T, the US carrier with sole Lumia launch rights, is playing a desperate market catch-up game with its rivals Verizon and Sprint Nextel, after earlier losing exclusivity over US iPhone sales.

Little, apart from that quirky Easter Sunday launch date, is being left to chance. And with some of the world’s powerful brands behind it (AT&T, for instance, is America’s second biggest advertiser) it seems hard to conceive of abject failure. AT&T alone is spending $150m through BBDO on the Lumia launch campaign – more than it ever spent on the iPhone. And there has been much hullabaloo in Times Square with a spectacular live event – watched by “tens of thousands of people” and videoed on Facebook – featuring 60-foot CGI-generated waves which cascade down a building.

If only smartphone marketing were simply about price, position, product and promotion, the Lumia 900 would have a field day. Alas, it’s also about apps. As a leading member of the tech commentariat David Pogue, of the New York Times, points out:

The Lumia 900 is fast, beautiful and powerful, inside and out. Unfortunately, a happy ending to this underdog story still isn’t guaranteed. Windows Phone 7 faces the mother of all chicken-and-egg problems: nobody’s going to write apps until WP7 becomes popular — but WP7 won’t become popular until there are apps.

And it’s anyone’s guess when that might be.

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Blackberry and Nokia: Twilight of the cellphone idols

June 17, 2011

Nothing dates quite like fashion, and nowhere is this truer than the technology sector – as Blackberry-maker RIM and Nokia are finding to their cost. In 10 years’ time, it’s conceivable that Blackberry will be no more than an extension in someone else’s brand repertoire, and Nokia – still, if only just, the market-leading brand in handset manufacturing – will have no more resonance than Ericsson does today. They are the brand equivalents of Shelley’s Ozymandias.

Salience in the consumer technology sector is all about keeping abreast of the latest trends. And it is clear that Nokia and RIM have not. Nokia has failed to conquer the smartphone market, while RIM has failed to continue dominating it. Both companies are now beset by lengthy delays in product launches, increasing investor pessimism and, that natural corollary, plunging share prices.

At a technical level, both these companies seemed singularly blind to the two-pronged threat from the iPhone and Android operating system until it was right on top of them. Nokia has belatedly discovered, under its new chief executive Stephen Elop, that its smartphone operating system is not up to snuff and is having to broker a last-minute and doubtful marriage with Microsoft’s superior version. RIM, on the other hand, had grown complacent about its apparently unassailable position in the elite corporate sector, with the result that it failed to adequately prepare for the advent of the touchscreen phone and the 10in tablet.

A case of sclerotic corporate cultures fatally mesmerized by their legacy of previous success? Only up to a point. Nokia and RIM, looked at more strategically, are victims of haphazard technological convergence. Who, 10 years ago, could have seen that mobile communications would come to be dominated by a formerly ailing computer manufacturer and an ingredient brand dreamed up by the world’s largest search engine? And who, even once the trend had become established 3 years ago, would have had the corporate courage, or foolhardiness, to bet all their assets and legacy on it being the inexorable path of the future?

It’s a sad truism that companies spend billions of dollars every year on insight and trend-spotting. But usually lack the judgement or willpower to make proper use of it.

UPDATE 4/7/11: “RIM is the Wang of mobile phones.” That was how Charles Dunstone (CEO of Carphone Warehouse Group) referred to the Canadian Blackberry-maker at last week’s Google ThinkMobile conference. Wang was a classy corporate-oriented computer company that specialised in just one thing, word processing. But it was blown away by Microsoft’s Office. Wang filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and eventually disappeared into Netherlands-based Getronics in 1999, never to be seen again. I wish I had thought of that parallel first, Charles…


Are brand valuation tables simply telling us the blindingly obvious?

May 10, 2011

No surprise to see Apple’s topping performance in the annual BrandZ survey, put together by WPP subsidiary Millward Brown.

Or is it? If we are to believe in these league tables which regularly assess the brand values of some of the world’s largest corporations, we should surely expect a certain consistency between them.

This is far from always the case. Take Apple itself. For the last year or two is has been the world’s top, or near top, company by market capitalisation with a simply stunning profit record. No one in their right mind would argue that branding, through Steve Jobs’ long career, has not been a salient feature of the technology company’s success (even when some elements, such as profitability, were clearly lacking). Put the two together, and you would surely expect it to be near the top.

But that’s not so when we turn to BrandZ’s principal rival, the longer-established Interbrand Best Global Brands, owned by Omnicom. Curiously Apple comes in at a sickly 17, up from 20, in the Interbrand rankings for 2010, published last September – the latest available.

Apple may be the most conspicuous anomaly, but it’s certainly not the only one when we compare the two league tables. Why is Disney so highly regarded by Interbrand (it’s ninth), but relatively lowly by BrandZ (it’s 38th)? Why is Samsung only 67th in the BrandZ charts, while it is ranked 19th by Interbrand? Doubtless there are other glaring disparities, which the more eagle-eyed will spot.

Such mis-attention to detail, you say. It’s the differing methodologies isn’t it? A bit of capitalist differentiation in the brand valuation market. You pick the one you trust more and go with it.

Well, not exactly – despite the anomalies, there’s plenty of consensus too. Technology companies, however ordered, now overwhelmingly dominate the top ten (and in BrandZ’s case, the second ten as well); mostly the same names crop up as well. Louis Vuitton is clearly the top-ranking French brand: both tables have it in their top 30. Even some of the valuations are pretty similar. Coca-Cola’s brand-worth, for instance, is estimated at $74bn in BrandZ (just out); and $70bn in the Interbrand rankings. While BMW is valued at at just over $22bn by both.

Admittedly, Interbrand tends to be a little more economical with its overall valuations, in dollar terms. Then again, the real importance of these tables is not the absolute, but relative values conveyed: it resides in the dynamic interaction of the brands contained therein.

And yet it is precisely here that their biggest difficulty lies. Amusing though it may be to pick out the winners from the losers and also-rans, are we any the wiser once we have done so? True, such tables serve an important function as a marketing propaganda tool within the investment community – helping to prop up, or knock down, share prices. But many of the conclusions they reach seem blindingly obvious rationalisations after the fact.

So, in the case of BrandZ, Blackberry is down 20% and 11 places to number 22; while Nokia has tumbled 38 places to 79th and lost 28% of its value (now $11bn). Well strike me down with a feather. Nothing of course to do with the two brands well advertised failure to crack the current consumer smartphone market I suppose?

Mind you, at least the BrandZ analysis is consistent, attributing due weight to the two phone brands’ nemeses, Apple and Google. Which is more than you can say for the Interbrand picture.

On the subject of which, expect a major brand revaluation this autumn. Here’s a fairly safe prediction. If not actually top, Apple will be one of Interbrand’s top-performing brands this year.

NOTE: BrandZ table here. And Interbrand table here.


Stephen Elop’s fiery eloquence leaves Nokia looking a burnt-out case

February 10, 2011

I have no idea whether Nokia chief executive Stephen Elop’s announcement tomorrow of a pact with Microsoft will involve the ditching of Symbian mobile operating software in favour of Windows Phone 7.

But one thing I do predict is that nowhere will eloquent Elop’s now notorious staff memo make an appearance in Lucy Kellaway’s much feted annual FT corporate bullshit awards.

There was no elephant to be seen in any room, no going forward (that part presumably comes tomorrow), and no low-hanging fruit whatsoever.

Instead we had a terse, carefully constructed piece of prose that is a classic of its kind. It spared no illusion, but was rich in an almost poetic imagery that took in the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster and made a nod to ‘the boy on the burning deck’ along the way. Not the sort of thing you get from CEOs every day, is it? And, for that reason – and others  as well – I suspect Elop’s name will be hallowed in business schools for years to come even if what he does with the Nokia brand is not.

There are many things to be admired in “Burning Platform” (which appears in a literal sense to be an allusion to Symbian), but I would single out Elop’s searing indictment of Nokia’s faulty marketing strategy as the most notable. It’s the sort of detached corporate insight that only an outsider could bring – although most would have kept it to themselves and their boards:

We are still too often trying to approach each price range on a device-to-device basis.

The battle of devices has now become a war of ecosystems, where ecosystems include not only the hardware and software of the device, but developers, applications, ecommerce, advertising, search, social applications, location-based services, unified communications and many other things. Our competitors aren’t taking our market share with devices; they are taking our market share with an entire ecosystem. This means we’re going to have to decide how we either build, catalyse or join an ecosystem.

This is one of the decisions we need to make. In the meantime, we’ve lost market share, we’ve lost mind share and we’ve lost time.

Elop’s image of a desperate man plunging 30 meters into icy waters to escape the burning oil rig may be unique, but it is not without parallel. The Wall Street Journal has helpfully assembled a clutch of similar memos from high profile CEOs attempting to ride out a corporate crisis. They were equally embattled, if not equally eloquent. There’s the  Microsoft “Internet Tidal Wave” memo in 1995, in which Bill Gates highlights the web-threat to PCs; the “Commoditization of the Starbucks Experience” call to arms by chairman Howard Schulz in 2007; the 2006 Yahoo Peanut Butter Manifesto, in which an executive pointed out the internet company was spreading itself too thinly to survive; and John Pluthero’s morale boosting memo to Cable & Wireless staff, roundly condemning “an underperforming business in a crappy industry.”

I’m not sure they’ve all had the fully desired effect. I wonder if Elop will be any more successful?

UPDATE 11/2/11: So, Elop is going for the Windows Phone 7 deal after all. He’s chucking Nokia’s upmarket MeeGo specification, but keeping the mid-market Symbian operating software – for now. Early traders on the Helsinki stock exchange seem to agree with the somewhat spiteful verdict of a Google executive, perhaps smarting from Android’s exclusion from the Nokia picture: two turkeys do not make an eagle. They marked down Nokia shares a savage 10%. But it’s early days. Both Microsoft and Nokia, though on the backfoot, have huge latent market power. And we should not underestimate the willingness of the mobile operators to embrace a wider spectrum of competition within the smartphone sector, which will have the desirable byproduct of buttressing their own market position against those impudent upstarts Apple and Google.


Epica Awards give boost to France – and WPP

November 29, 2010

This year’s Epica creative advertising awards – the 24th in the series – sprang some interesting surprises. France was the lead country – both in the number of winners and total awards – for the first time since 2004. WPP’s Y&R was deemed the most creative agency group – far outdistancing the usual competition from the Omnicom Group. And one of the top winners was an iPhone app.

As one of the 26 trade journal editors drawn from across Europe to judge these awards (exceptionally, the winners are not decided by a jury of creatives) I can testify that recovery is definitely on its way – entries were up 10% this year to over 3,000. But it’s a patchy recovery. The year that has seen France emerge from a creative wilderness is also the year in which one of its two principal advertising trade magazines, CB News – founded by the legendary Christian Blachas, has gone into administration. Elsewhere, the quality of print work (at least, in my opinion) has improved after a long decline; by contrast this was not a vintage year for the television and cinema commercial.

A sign of the times was the ‘Streetmuseum’ iPhone’s app – devised by Brothers & Sisters for the Museum of London– bagging one of the competition’s top four prizes, the Epica d’Or for interactivity. With a museum as client, it was always likely to be a low-budget affair, but what good use it made of that budget. The app artfully exploits sized-to-fit historic photographs as overlays on present-day Google street-map technology to give a vivid impression of London’s past whenever a visitor looked up a landmark on his iPhone. The app shot up to 19th most popular free download and, so the museum reckons, has trebled the number of its visitors.

In the hotly contested film section (TV and cinema commercials) the winner was the somewhat controversial ‘Dot’ created by Wieden & Kennedy London and Aardman Animations for Nokia N8, a smartphone. As a piece of low-budget film-making it’s masterly and involving. On brief too: Nokia has fallen behind in our perception of a desirable smartphone brand and this film, which uses CellScope technology on a bog-standard phone to achieve a remarkable piece of micro-animation, helps to redress the balance. It is one of a series that highlights Nokia’s technical competence in the smartphone arena. The (admittedly non-creative) question mark is: how much of a media budget was spent on disseminating the message? In other words, how many people have seen it?

Stacked up against ‘Dot’ in the final heat was Fred & Farid’s bizarrely amusing ‘Anytime, Anywhere’ TV and cinema ad for Orangina. A series of animals (from giraffes to bears and gay cougars – my own favourite is the iguana sketch) impersonate the actors in a range of cliched television ads, from floor-cleaner to car polish, breakfast cereal to energy drink and zit-buster. The common factor being Orangina starring as the product in every ad. Cut to bloke watching the ads on television, nuzzling up to a sheep (presumably his wife) on the sofa. Animated hommage to Disney, satire of the advertising industry? Who knows? It could only be French. Try it and see:

In the circumstances, there were other commercials that should have made it to the final cut. For example, Ogilvy’s Dove Manthem (you know the one: sing along to William Tell), which was the winner in the toiletries and healthcare category.

Just as odd was the exclusion of Adam & Eve’s ‘Always a Woman’ ad for John Lewis. It lost out at the category stage to Sapient Nitro’s ‘Sneaker Mastermind’ work for Footlocker. Not itself a great ad, but one not dogged by a plagiarism controversy.

Fred & Farid may have been pipped at the post by ‘Dot’ but they triumphed in the outdoor category with an Epica d’Or for their Wrangler Red work. The ‘animal’ theme (lots of that this year) is not new, but the photographic execution was considered outstanding.

More interesting was the final major category, the print Epica d’Or, where M&C Saatchi’s ‘The Last Place You Want to Go’ ad for Dixons narrowly beat BETC Euro RSCG’s Evian ‘Baby Inside’ work.  Evian has made the baby theme something of a trademark these past ten years, each year developing it in a new and interesting direction. This year the image was of adults with the bodies of babies superimposed on their white t-shirts: simple and effective.

But not as startlingly unusual as the Dixons ads, which appealed to the head as much as the heart. It’s good to see outstanding retail print work, full stop; but even better when it employs witty, old-fashioned long-copy which makes elegant fun of the retailer’s rivals. In the eternal struggle for mastery between copy and image, copy definitely won out this year.

So much for the work, but what of the winning countries and agencies? It was noticeable that while France was easily ahead in all winning categories – winners, silver, bronze and total awards – Britain managed to nail three of the four Epica d’Ors (film, interactive and print). It came third overall, but behind France (a long way behind) in the categories winners’ league. Sweden was number two overall, with Germany in fourth place. Far down the league table was the usually feistier Spain.

The top agency was Sweden’s Forsman & Bodenfors, Gothenburg, with 15 awards in total, four of them category winners. Serviceplan Gruppe, Munich & Hamburg – a previous winner – came second. The more important insight to emerge, however, was Y&R’s easy dominance as top network. It had 8 winners across four offices, compared with next-placed DDB’s 4 winners across the same number. Ogilvy came third with four across three. BBDO (like DDB, owned by Omnicom), often an overall winner, has drifted well down the table  (3 over 2).

Taken at face value, that’s something of a pat on the back for WPP creative supremo John O’Keeffe, whose avowed aim is to displace Omnicom as creative top dog. O’Keeffe has his eye on the Cannes Awards, but Epica winners have often proved a useful harbinger.


Interpublic’s solution to Lowe London? A Wall of money

April 19, 2010

Who will put Lowe London out of its misery? The loss of its principal accounts seems an everlasting litany. To Stella Artois, John Lewis and Nokia N-Series should also be added the Beck’s account. All that’s propping Lowe London up is international business from Unilever (barring Peperami, which went last year) and Johnson & Johnson. According to Nielsen, 2009’s already depleted billings of £91m shrank to a minuscule £53m.

How to attract top talent in such circumstances – the talent that will draw in vital new business? It’s a vicious circle, from which there are only two ways for a once famous agency to extract itself. Call it a day, as Lowe alma mater CDP did long after it should have. Or buy something that will enthuse new talent and new enthusiasm.

Not surprisingly, it is the latter course that Lowe Worldwide chief Michael Wall has embarked upon. Evidence of his enthusiasm and determination may be deduced from approaches to Creston plc (owner of Delaney Lund Knox Warren); Rapier; and Dye Holloway Murray. So far, it would seem, the overtures have been unrequited. But we should not underestimate the charm of a man with an open cheque book in these straitened times; nor the forcefulness of someone who has managed to persuade cash-strapped Interpublic to cough up.


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