Here’s a really bad idea: Launch your new and totally awesome product, then give it four (yes four!) brand names. Sounds preposterous, right? Well, believe it or not, this is a real story taking place in the technology market, as we speak.
Samsung is preparing to launch its newest Android smartphone, the Galaxy. And unlike the leader of pack (iPhone), Samsung is abandoning carrier exclusivity by launching on all major U.S. mobile operators. The upside is that Samsung gets to sell its new device to any consumer who wants it. The downside is that each carrier gets to slap its own moniker on the phone, confusing everyone. The Samsung Galaxy will be known as: Fascinate (Verizon), Captivate (AT&T), Galaxy S (U.S. Celluar), and Vibrant* (T-Mobile).
In the U.S. the mobile operators carry a lot of weight when it comes to the marketing and branding of mobile phones. Except for the big players (iPhone, Palm (formerly), and Blackberry), the carriers have always been able brand a manufacturer’s device however they see fit. This power dynamic might be a remnant of the time when carriers differed vastly in terms of coverage and pricing, while the phones were all basically the same. (Sure, some flipped and some didn’t. But they all had similar features.) Thus, the consumer purchasing decision was almost always based on the carrier brand and not on the handsets.
A few popular devices came along and signaled a change in the last five years or so. The Blackberry and Treo phones retained their names across carriers, most likely due to their brand popularity. But those were both phones typically coveted by the business professionals or tech geeks. Then along came the iPhone. Suddenly, the consumer focus was on the pretty, shiny device – so much so that they would buy it even knowing the carrier offered non-existent coverage (ahem, AT&T in San Francisco and New York). With Android phones becoming the first true competitor to the market leading iPhone, this consumer shift in importance to product instead of carrier will only continue.
Despite this consumer priority shift, the marketing relationship is still a relic of the past and continues to favor the carriers. Can you think of any other reason why a major hardware competitor to the iPhone would have four different brand names? The traditional relationship between the carriers and manufacturers has to evolve, as does the marketing paradigm. Brand proliferation is bad enough when you have a company simply trying to manage its own brands. But then, give that company’s partner license to proliferate brands ad nauseum and the brand name portfolios reach exponential rates of confusion. Will anyone, corporate or consumer, know which phone is which ever again?
Imagine how many more phones Samsung would sell if they could depend on word of mouth advertising. But the way it is now, Bob might tell Sandy about how awesome his new Samsung Captivate is and how she should get one. Sandy quickly takes a look at her carrier and notices that T-Mobile doesn’t have Bob’s nifty new phone — they only carry the Samsung Vibrant. Oh well, Sandy just won’t buy a new phone! Nobody wins in that situation.
Or, picture the frustration of tech gadget geek Aaron (any similarities to the author of this post are completely coincidental). Aaron is considering leaving the iPhone and AT&T for a network that actually has coverage in his city. He reviews the tech blogs to see how the Android-based Samsung Galaxy S stacks up to the iPhone. Sadly, when he pops into the Verizon store, he doesn’t see a Galaxy S phone, and so he buys an HTC Incredible instead.
Finally, imagine Samsung’s headache in trying to advertise the same phone with four different names. Their web site is already a complete mess — phones are displayed by carrier, not by brand. <http://www.samsung.com/us/consumer/mobile/mobile-phones/index.idx?pagetype=type> And, never mind about the poor Creative Director’s nightmare trying to create an ad campaign: 1 phone, 4 names, 30 seconds. Impossible!
However, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon: Rumors abound of the iPhone’s introduction onto the Verizon network. There’s no way that Apple will allow Verizon to rebrand the iPhone. Perhaps this will be the wedge that allows other manufacturers to demand consistent brand naming across mobile platforms. It’s only with clear and cross-platform branding that a phone will ever gain sufficient consumer awareness to compete with the industry giant iPhone.
* By the way: Does anyone else think “Vibrant” sounds a little too much like a sex toy? Perhaps it’ll have extra-strength vibrate mode.