The real reason Nokia can't beat Apple

Nokia N9

Finnish-phone maker Nokia could learn something from director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg. They deliberately released only a teaser trailer, short on information and long on suspense, for movie "Super 8". The cryptic title evoked mystery, too. Had the trailer told the story, the movie might not be as successful.

Nokia marketing is good to a fault. Product advertising and marketing is among the best in techdom. The adverts and promo videos are often clever, funny, provocative and moving. Nokia knows how to motivate people to buy its products, in part because the marketing is memorable or truly aspirational -- that buyers lives will be better for being this Nokia phone or that one.

The storytelling is great but comes too soon. Nokia typically announces a new handset, promotes the hell out of it but doesn't release anything for many months. Users salivate for what they want now but can't get until later. When the handset finally releases, the story is old. The suspense is gone. Nokia's efficient marketing works against the new product because it came too soon and told too much.

For example, Nokia debuted its flagship Symbian smartphone, the N8, in April 2010. I gave 10 reasons to get excited about the handset. Nokia's launch marketing was exceptionally good, as it always is, with great promos, how-tos and inside info about the approach to designing the N8. But the smartphone didn't go on sale for another five months, at the Nokia online store, and limited distribution elsewhere in October 2010.

By the time N8 was available for sale, Nokia had exhausted interest --nearly six months of promotion and marketing killed it. Meanwhile, iPhone 4 shipped globally, in June 2010, with a good story about a product people could buy right then and there.

Proverb for Good Marketing

My dad made my sisters and I go to church when we were kids, not that he went himself. He said it would be hypocritical to only go on Easter and Christmas. I remember a proverb from those days: "Hope deferred makes the heart sick but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life." People don't like to wait, particularly when they're promised something really desirable. Nokia made plenty of promises with N8, like it did with the N900, N97 and other handsets, for months before release. Good marketing went bad. Companies should promise and deliver, not promote then wait half a year (or more).

Yesterday, Nokia launched the N9, and it's a drool-worthy smartphone. Even John Gruber, one of Apple's great blogger supporters, is impressed: "Great-looking hardware and what appears to be a true, modern mobile touchscreen OS...Four and a half years after Apple announced the iPhone, Nokia has now announced a worthy rival. And it's based on the MeeGo OS that apparently is a dead-end, as the company prepares to focus on Windows Phone 7".

Exactly -- Windows Phone will become Nokia's primary operating system sometime very soon, making the N9 obsolete even before it goes on sale. But the phone looks good, and the marketing and promotional material is exceptionally compelling, as usual. Betanews founder Nate Mook and I had several IM conversations about the N9 yesterday. Nokia didn't give ship date or price for the smartphone. Nate expresses my sentiment: "It kills market interest. They have all these consumers drooling right now."

Apple's approach is different, by

  • Announcing new iPhones closer to launch date
  • Giving an exact launch date and pricing when announced
  • Not making buyers wait too long to get something they pine for
  • Saving most of the marketing -- the storytelling -- for after the launch

Storied Sales Pitches

The go-to-market approaches go something like this:

Nokia: We've got this awesome new smartphone. Check it out! It will be coming to the market at some undeterminded date in the future at a price we are not going to disclose -- and we're also not going to tell you which carriers get it. But look how awesome it is!

Apple: We've got this awesome new smartphone, check it out! You can buy it on September 5 for $199 or $299 from 20 carriers in a dozen countries. You can buy it from Apple Store or one of the carriers. We will send reminders so you won't forget. If you don't want one, you will!

Today there are rumors that Nokia will launch its first handset running Windows Phone in late October. It's pure speculation, really, based on Nokia World being announced for October 26-27 in London. Timing would be about right for release of Windows Phone "Mango". Let's assume the speculation is right. That would put the first Nokia Windows Phone handset announcement around the same time or after iPhone 5's launch (most rumors are for September).

If Nokia sticks to its longstanding pattern, there will be a launch without imminent sale of the product. Nokia will build up desire but not immediately fulfill it.

Nokia cannot continue to operate this way. It's bleeding market share. In first quarter, Nokia's global smartphone share dropped from 38.8 percent to 24.3 percent, based on shipments, according to IDC. Apple is poised to become global smartphone leader sometime this year.

Yesterday, as part of the N9 launch, Stephen Elop, Nokia CEO, proclaimed: "It's the beginning of a new era for Nokia". Oh yeah? Not unless Nokia changes its marketing habits, bud.

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