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Back in the 1990s up until the early 2000s and the dot com bust, the corporate world went through a phase of creating or acquiring websites. Quite a few large corporations wanted their own website- their entry into this new age of the internet and web browsing. Fast forward to 2015 and a similar trend seems to be on the rise, but this time with smartphones. Major corporations, most recently Pepsi, seem to have gained a sudden interest in these pocket computers, and all of them it seems, want a slice of this “mobile pie”. The motivation behind this is simple. The huge rates of adoption, and the increasing ability of mass production, are some of the reasons why a lot of companies want to get into making smartphones.

It’s about the Brand

It’s not just that companies are making smartphones because they can, it also has a lot to do with brand recognition. A smartphone or a tablet can be used to further your brand, kind of like branded merchandise. More importantly though, it can be used as a gateway drug into getting involved with other products and services offered by your company. Take a look at Amazon for example. They sell Kindle tablets, and Kindle Fire streaming sticks for a very low price, but the aim is not to sell you a device, but to get you buy more stuff through Amazon.

Branded smartphones that are not just a trinket or a freebie, but devices with capable hardware and competent software. That is the value proposition here.

An evolution of the branded merchandise concept

Made for Bond Sony Xperia
That’s not to say that such tie-in devices are not found at all. Sony’s James Bond branded Xperia devices are a notable exception. However, these kinds of deals are more of an exception rather than the norm.

The Pepsi phone in particular highlights how companies and corporate entities can really create an entire new smartphone instead of having to create branded editions of other phones. Companies no longer need to have tie-ins with carriers or phone makers anymore. In a way, it’s like eliminating the middleman.

There’s another reason why we don’t see many tie-in devices like the Porsche design BlackBerry or the LG Prada. Owing to changes in smartphone design over the years, people now use cases and vinyl skins to add a bit of flair to their phones. If people want official brand merchandise like your favorite sports team today, they are more likely to buy a branded case or a skin rather than an entire branded smartphone.

Others have tried before…

…and they have not been so successful. The most significant examples that come forth are Facebook, and Amazon. Facebook and HTC launched a device called the “HTC First”. It was a smartphone with decent specifications, a good design, and was meant to be a vehicle for Facebook’s Android Launcher called “Facebook Home”. The HTC First was a remarkable flop, owing partly to being exclusive to one carrier, and partly because it was a one trick pony. The consumers saw no value in a run of the mill device with just one stand out marquee feature.

The more spectacular and widely recorded failure was Amazon’s Fire Phone. It was very ambitious. A parallax 3D effect made possible by four front facing cameras, a skinned version of Android, and deep integrations with Amazon’s e Commerce section, with it’s Firefly feature and year’s worth of free Prime subscription. Again, the reasons for failure in this case were not only bad pricing, but the fact that nobody wants to buy a phone for what are essentially features that can be provided on any other phone.

commodore pet smartphone
Commodore is banking on nostalgia to sell their phone.

The Commodore phone is a more recent example, banking on nostalgia for the classic brand. An apparent re-brand of a Chinese OEM phone with some emulators pre-installed, and the Commodore logo on the back. This phone is already embroiled in some controversy now, and reiterates the same issue- it’s relying more on the brand rather than its own credentials as a smartphone.

The Marshall London- good idea, great design language, low end specs, terrible pricing.

Yet another example can be found in the form of the Marshall London. Marshall is known in the pro audio world for its speakers and audio equipment, and they made a very unique looking device. Designed with the Marshall aesthetic style, and with dual headphone jacks for separate stereo output, it also has a DJ app that lets you mix tracks while audio is playing through the speakers. The trouble is, the specifications and features alone do not justify its hefty price tag. The specifications are more in line with sub-$200 devices like the Moto G. Although it’s nice to see branded smartphones echo the design language of the companies they represent, this device looks to be a case of more form than function.

A more decadent example is that of the Lamborghini phone. It’s a ridiculously expensive smartphone built for a very specific market, of those who can afford a $6,000 smartphone.


What’s missing?

How can major corporations design a branded device that’s actually worthwhile to consumers? The answer is, it’s all in the experience. Ever since the launch of the original iPhone back in 2007, companies have been trying to mimic that success. Many have found success to an extent- and many more are now trying to to this day. With the focus on diversifying and “innovating” for the sake of differentiating themselves, companies fail to recognize what the people want, which is a mix of hardware, software and user experience. It’s not enough just to slap your branding on the outside, and pack in some bundled apps or themes to go with it. Give us things that we want but don’t have yet. Give us unique form factors. Give us timely software updates and great after sale support. Consumers don’t want gimmicks and software equivalents of party tricks, they want performance at the right price.

The consumer doesn’t want a branded phone that looks and feels like something that belongs on the bargain bin, or something that gets sent out as branded merchandise. A smartphone is a significant investment that people use for at least a year or two, if not more. If you’re going to charge top dollar for something that’s not quite there in terms of hardware and software, today’s consumer isn’t going to buy it. If you focus on what’s under the hood in terms of both features and user experience, they will praise the sticker that’s on the back.

A branded smartphone should feel like a pleasant surprise, rather than a cynical cash-in. In today’s mature smartphone market, it’s very hard to surprise tech-savvy buyers even with the latest cutting edge specifications. A device that’s built from the ground up with the end user in mind, and not the brand’s value, is what is needed today. If large corporations actually do something like this and surprise us all with a brilliant smartphone, it might just be the jolt that the regular heavyweights in the mobile tech world need to spring into action.

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