It’s like a thoroughbred horse race that never ends. Smart phone brands are in a constant all out dash for market share and have found ways to launch new models overnight, pump them up and then discard them for a faster horse, as soon as it falters.
The Pearl, Flip, Curve, Bold, Tour, Storm, Storm 2, and the Torch are all sub-brands of just one leading brand, BlackBerry. Throughout the industry, new models emerge suddenly and are given a few scant months to catch on. Devices that a few months ago seemed years ahead of their time are soon discarded as laughably obsolete.
About a year ago, I bought an iPhone 3GS and had one concern: the battery was not replaceable. When I asked the salesperson about it, he answered, “Dude, don’t worry, by the time the battery fails, you’ll want the next version of the iPhone anyway.” And despite the normal human reaction against anyone telling me what I would be thinking two years from now, I knew he was right. These devices are technological wonders, but they are simply a means to an end. We’ve all come to expect a much better product to be available each time our two-year agreement comes around.
Brands and technology are natural partners because technology advances can be a highly tangible point of difference. That is until a competitor imitates or leap frogs your innovation. Maintaining a constant lead is extremely difficult, but the mantra of the mobile phone industry very well could be “why not invent a new brand?”
Enter Exhibit A, the iPhone. Believe or not, this solid brand is not even four years old, launching January 2007. Even at that tender age, it has entered its fourth generation, and despite some glitches with antenna software (or hardware, depending on who you want to believe), sales are going strong. The iPhone is a classic story of successful brand extension. Dipping into the Apple mystique that had already created millions of brand loyalists, Steve Jobs et al. crafted an entirely new device that offered many new features and much of the functionality that its users were already familiar with from using Apple computers and iPods. Of course, all the devices linked up seamlessly and talked to the user in that comfortable human way that is classic Apple. Sales of the iPhone have topped 50 million worldwide and are a major driver of the company’s growth in the last few years.
But for sheer brand alchemy, there is no topping the newest star of the smart phone world, the Droid. Though it is an elegantly simple brand concept with the world’s shortest tagline, “Does,” the DNA of the Droid brand is actually an elaborate orchestration. Hold on to your ear buds while I try to ‘splain it: “Droid” is a registered trademark of Lucasfilm, makers of the Star Wars movie classics. Verizon, seeking an exclusivity to match AT&T’s hold on iPhone, licensed the mark for use in the mobile phone industry. In turn, Verizon synced up with Motorola and renamed an existing phone, the “Milestone,” the “Droid” for sales in the U.S. The phone runs Google’s operating system, known as “Android.” (Another manufacturer, HTC, makes other versions of the Droid for Verizon as well.)
Talk about the Empire strikes back. Three fast growing empires–Verizon, Motorola, and Google– have united against the rebel brand known as Apple to create a phone equivalent of the Death Star. And the Droid phone, behind a beautifully consistent campaign that portrays Droid users as superhuman, high-tech, multi-taskers, has made a significant dent in iPhone sales, as well as other less iconic smart phone brands. Droid has matched iPhone with four models, but has done it in less than a year from its own launch on October 28, 2009.
Lost in this wireless allegory is BlackBerry, the reigning leader in the smart phone category and owner of a significant loyalist segment of its own that is slowly dwindling. Their saving grace at this time maybe that they are not wedded to any wireless provider so their phones are available on multiple networks. But staying ahead of brand powerhouses like Verizon and Apple is likely to become increasingly difficult.
In a world where most of us own a mobile phone and spend $50 or more per month to use it, the forces of technology are fiercely battling for the right to provide each one of our anytime minutes, plus add-ons. Brands have always experienced peaks and valleys, but in the wireless industry these wavelengths are now measured in months not years. Who will win between Luke and Darth Vader, I mean Verizon and AT&T? It’s hard to say, but we are likely to continue to see each new phone branded at something approaching the speed of light.