The Brand Vector

Have you noticed how many brands engulf our everyday lives ? There is a brand for every walk of life, every aspiration, every type of physical good, every action and almost every notion. From Wagner to Madonna, from Habitat to Marks & Spensers, from El Greco to Picasso, from Casio to Tag Heuer, from Athlete’s Foot to Gucci, from Ryanair to Singapore Airlines, from Accessorize to Shiseido, from Skoda to Porsche, from EasyMobile to Vodafone, from BenQ to Vertu, from Manchester United to Tiger Woods, from the Simpsons to Sarah Jessica Parker, from Socrates to Harry Potter, from Cirrus to Visa, from JVC to Bang & Olufsen, from Seven Eleven to Waitrose, from the Sun to the Financial Times.

Brands convey a personality, a style, a predisposition, a mood. Brand marketing and positioning has become so sophisticated that there is literally hardly anything that we wear, do, think or dream that we cannot associate with a brand.

The reverse is also true.

The brand vector
Each one of us owns, loves, aspires or hates certain brands. One might conjecture that our possessions, actions, aspirations and counter-aspirations can be described sufficiently fully as a set of brands. For example I may like to fly Lufthansa, wear Boss, drive an Alpha Romeo, watch the Discovery Channel, shop from Sainsbury’s, read the Harvard Business Review, drink Tropicana and eat at TGI Fridays.

Taking this notion to the extreme, the personality of each citizen of the industrialised, globalised, marketed-to-death western world can be described as a set of brands. And given that each type of activity or aspiration in our lives is catered for by a spectrum of brands (see list of brand ranges above as an example), then each personality can be described as a brand vector.

This is a powerful notion both for marketers and for consumers.

As a marketer, being able to accurately measure the brand vector of consumers is the ticket to the nirvana of 1-1 marketing. For consumers, it’s a scary notion. I ‘m not a number, and even if I subscribe to Archimede’s school of thought (where everyone and everything in the universe is associated a unique number), then I don’t want anyone to know this number. That would utterly devalue my very own sense of uniqueness and privacy.

It is unfortunately an inescapable consequence of our over-marketed consumerist societies that brand vectors will be eventually used to measure, describe and sell to consumers.

So what does this have to do with mobile ?

The mobile handset: the new frontier of personalisation
Mobile handsets are as personal, indispensable and inseparable to us as our clothes and our wallet. Yet have you noticed how handsets are the least personalised items that we carry on us day by day?. How many endless combinations of clothes and accessories can one choose from ? Probably in the seven, eight, nine, or even ten digit number range. Yet how many handset models are there in circulation ? Roughly 3000. And they all look the same (ok, almost the same if you exclude the Razr, the SonyEricsson Walkmans and a few other bright exceptions). There are accessories and faceplates, especially popular in ultra-developed markets like Japan, but still, the handset branding or personalisation is often superficial, i.e. it does not permeate into the handset materials or user interface.

However this is changing. We are entering the new era of handset personalisation.

The handset as the expression of brand
Once upon a time there were the mobile operators who provided the voice and data network. And then there was rebranding, and Orange showed that the future’s bright. And then there were walled gardens. And then there were independent retailers and off-deck portals. And then there were brands who discovered that the mobile handset was the third screen. And then brands discovered that the operators could not attract consumers with their one-size-fits-all brand. And then brands conquered the mobile handset and the mobile services and reduced operators to voice and brand pipes.

This is probably how history books will describe the first 25 years of mobile history. The important point here is that we are now at the point in time where the evolution of brand ambitions and marketing plans is intersecting with the evolution of mobile services and mobile handsets. From Crazy Frog ringtones, and Madonna video clips, to complete new experiences such as the Firefly handset for 6-12 year old kids and the ESPN handset for sports enthusiasts.

Mobile is becoming the medium through which every brand can reach the consumer, here and now. Looking at the Vertu, Xelibri, Firefly and Vodafone Simply handsets, we are witnessing the emergence of the truly customised handset. Not just your ordinary, vanilla grey clamshell with a couple of downloaded ringtones, but a true and full expression of brand personality through tailored plastics, materials and user interface.

Think of the sleek shiny metal, elongated surface of a would-be Jaguar handset or the furry, huggable rounded surface of a Furby handset. Companies like e-SIM, Digital Airways and MSX are making possible completely branded user experiences for mass-market handsets. Companies like SkinIT are also moving aggressively to brand your handset cover with every different brand out there, from University clubs to Pop Stars, even design-your-own-cover-and-have-it-delivered-at-your-doorstep-in-ten-days handset cover. In 10 years every handset will be totally personalised, from the splash screen to the materials and the battery.

Back to the brand vector theory.

As the mobile handset becomes the receptacle of multiple brand expressions, and is always within the possession of the consumer, so it becomes the perfect tool to measure the brand vector of its user. Again a scary thought from a consumer perspective, but the aggregator or service provider who will be able to channel or measure the consumption of these brand expressions across users, handsets and regions will hold enviable value and power.

It’s all about the brand
In summary, the brand is slowly becoming the A to Z of the mobile user experience. From handset covers, to specialised materials, to a complete branded user interface. In parallel, the handset will eventually become the vehicle for measuring brand vectors, for understanding consumer behaviour, marketing and cross-marketing of every and any good.

History is being written.

Nokia must U-turn on its Symbian strategy

A year ago I wrote an article reasoning that Symbian’s outlook is no longer promising. In the article I argued that Symbian’s strategic value is deteriorating, as Nokia (both an ally and competitor) stifles Symbian’s efforts towards developing an independent, self-sustaining and competitive operating system for mobile handsets. My thesis was that Symbian’s only strategic option was to seek political and financial support from a network operator forum, as it is only the operators whose interests are aligned with those of Symbian.

Fast forward a year later and so much has changed in the handset OS chess game: Palm and DoCoMo are using Windows Mobile, open operating systems are heading towards mass-market and the OMTP operator-centric forum looks set to achieve very little.

However, Symbian’s future is looking worryingly same, destined to be reduced to a software house serving the needs of Nokia. Other manufacturers are becoming increasingly disillusioned with Symbian and Nokia’s S60 licensing strategy appears a costly but doomed experiment. Why invest in an independent software house, with the most complex software development and integration process in the industry when Nokia could have developed its core OS in house, faster, better and cheaper ?

I would argue that what Nokia needs to do is revise its strategy to form an ally of Symbian instead of a co-opetitor, to help the ailing OS to become an autonomous, turnkey but flexible operating system. But first, it’s worth reflecting on why Nokia’s strategy towards Symbian has failed so far.

Behind Symbian’s glossy numbers
Nokia has been the main force behind Symbian, and its over 100% year-on-year rise in sales for four consecutive years. At the same time it has been depriving Symbian of platform value, by supplying its own middleware components (PIM applications and their engines, security, browser, messaging components, sync engines, Java VM, DRM engine and UI customisation engine). This has broken Symbian platform story, which coupled with Symbian’s idiosynchratic C++ language and lack of a reliable IDE has made for the most complex, arduous development of applications on mobile handsets.

Furthermore, as several essential software components have to be provided by parties outside Symbian and integrated closely with the hardware reference platforms the OS integration and testing process is the most complex and time-consuming in the handset industry.

Essentially, the operating system has not been as easy to customised and integrate on different handsets as other manufacturers had wished. Siemens’, Samsung’s and Panasonic’s delayed (and often failed) attempts at producing Symbian-based handsets is a testament to this. At the same time, DoCoMo’s investment of several tens of millions to co-develop a UI and middleware layer that sits on top of Symbian is an indication of how inadequate the Symbian OS is on its own.

The complexity of OS integration has impacted not only time-to-market, but also commercial viability (how many Symbian OS-based projects have been abandoned?) and scalability (how much longer can Symbian keep doubling its handset projects year on year ?).

One may argue that Symbian has become the least desirable open operating system out there. OK, so there’s Windows Mobile which comes with the negative reputation Microsoft carries, but which has been garnering commercial support by the likes of Samsung, Siemens, Palm, Motorola and the endless array of Chinese ODMs.

But it’s not just Symbian that’s suffering because of Nokia’s strategy. It’s Nokia itself.

Why Nokia shot itself in the foot
Manufacturers (perhaps with exception of SonyEricsson) have been disillusioned with Symbian’s value and potential as an operating system for their handsets and have been slowly pulling out in different directions. Even Palm’s Ed Colligan noted that ‘Nokia owns Symbian’, suggesting that Palm would not support the operating owned by a competitor in the smartphone space.

Nokia has indeed developed the organisational structure, expertise and processes to keep up with its smartphone expansion strategy. However, Nokia’s S60 licensing operations haven’t fared well. Here’s why.

One might reason that Nokia’s S60 licensing strategy has been based on two pillars: firstly, extending the S60 platform to handsets beyond Nokia’s own and secondly, influencing the roadmap of competing manufacturers. Therefore, as manufacturers lose faith in Symbian, the S60 strategy suffers. As a result, Nokia’s restrain on Symbian has restricted the potential for S60 beyond Nokia handsets.

In addition, Nokia has had to pay dearly for the Symbian OS through shares and licensee fees (over $100M a year in license fees alone according to ARCchart). In this sense is Nokia’s investment in Symbian sound, when it could have spent less resources and time to develop an OS internally?

No one wants to play with Symbian
So where does Symbian look for a helping hand ? SonyEricsson seems to be a persistent supporter, most clearly displayed by its announcements for the next generation Walkman and M600 handsets. However, I expect Nokia to continue keeping SonyEricsson at a safe distance from having a greater say on Symbian strategy. How about Fujitsu and DoCoMo ? DoCoMo simply wants to have a healthy choice of OS suppliers (Symbian, Linux and recently Microsoft), rather than taking an influential stake at Symbian. In parallel, DoCoMo doesn’t want to upset Nokia, as it needs the Finnish giant to supply handsets for its ailing i-mode operations in Europe (where poor handset selection is a key reason for poor i-mode penetration). European operators such as France Telecom/Orange and Vodafone have joined forces in the OMTP, but which is bound to fail amidst the cacophony of self-centred and divergent opinions echoed by its members. And where does an innovative operator like Vodafone go when it decides to invest in a software platform? To Nokia for a S60-based UI customisation layer and next-generation Java APIs in the form of the MSA initiative.

Who’s there to help Symbian? No one.

Except Nokia.

Nokia has taken some steps to restore the shine on Symbian’s platform story. It has revamped its Codewarrior code development suite (purchased in 2004 from Metrowerks) to provide a unified set of tools for developing across the whole range of Symbian variants, from S60 to UIQ and for entry level to professional programmers.

But this doesn’t address the ailing integration process that harms Symbian’s time-to-market, its scalability, the commercial viability of its projects and has ultimately hurt Nokia’s S60 expansion strategy.

Nokia should u-turn on its strategy
Clearly Nokia has to rethink its strategy of depriving Symbian of platform value. For the benefit of its financial investment and S60 expansion strategies, it needs to support Symbian in becoming an autonomous, turnkey, flexible operating system.

Here’s my thesis. In terms of technology, Nokia should allow Symbian to have ownership and control of key middleware components such as platform security, messaging apps, synchronisation engine, Java VM, DRM engine and UI customisation engine. Nokia can retain control of high-value components such as the browser and S60 UI, but ensure that they are clearly abstracted and componentised, so that they can be developed, validated and integrated with as much independence from the core OS as possible. Manufacturers should be able to drop the UI, core OS and customised components, and integrate with the easiness touted by Open Plug’s FlexibleWare architecture. If Open Plug can accomplish this for Linux that has only lately been optimised for mobile handsets, then why can’t Symbian develop a similar componentised architecture for itself ?

Furthermore, in terms of process, Symbian needs to be able to take in direct requirements from operators (not wishlists that may or may not make it to the final handset) and take sole ownership of the integration process for hardware reference design vendors like TI and Intel.

In other words, Nokia should realise that it’s only option is to help Symbian grow its own market and build on it, rather than grabbing as much share of the pie as it can.

And what about Symbian’s shareholder equity ? As Michael Mace, formed Chief Competitive Officer for Palm, put it, “how long will Benq and Panasonic want to remain part owners in an OS they longer use and that damaged their phone businesses? That means 18.9% of Symbian is likely to be for sale in the near future (if it isn’t already)”. Buying this 18.9% would put Nokia above the psychological barrier of the 50% of ownership, but below 70% needed to approve major initiatives, under Symbian governance rules. But again, if Nokia wants to own Symbian, then it’s much cheaper building an in-house OS development team rather than maintaining investment in an independent entity like Symbian. And following the previous thesis, if Symbian is to become an autonomous, turnkey OS then it needs to have a balance of shareholder power across its board.

I only hope Nokia is listening.