The smartphone popularity contest: Palm Pre crashes iPhone 3G S' party

Market research firm Interpret, LLC issued a report today that examines the public's mindshare of the market's leading smartphones (iPhone 3G, iPhone 3G S, Palm Pre, Android G1, BlackBerry Storm, BlackBerry Curve). In other words, it gauges the public's perception of particular devices and how "popular" they are outside of actual sales figures.

While observing popularity often just serves to reiterate what many people think they already know about a product, Interpret's report propounds that it is no longer enough for smartphones to just perform advanced tasks, but they must also project certain qualities about their owners. The qualities that people most wanted to say about themselves through their phone were: "hip/cool," "smart," and "productive."

Unsurprisingly, the most important quality people look for in a smartphone is its ability to make them look and feel smart, intelligent and adept. Who knew, right? Behind that is the hip/trendy factor, followed by productive, efficient and organized.

The phone with dominant mindshare, the iPhone 3G S, is highly associated with coolness (62%), but has the lowest perceived productivity value (39%). The Palm Pre, despite very low initial sales numbers, is actually the best all-around in terms of those three factors, Interpret said today. It has secured this position thanks to marketing which emphasizes all three characteristics equally.

In marketing it this way, Palm has even managed to convince the public that the Pre is "smarter" than the iPhone 3G S.

How did Palm manage that? Generally speaking, there are four channels in product marketing: advertising, personal sales (reps at Sprint stores, for example), promotions (giveaways, deals, incentives) and general PR (unpaid testimonials, media reviews, peer evangelism).

Palm has gained substantial visibility through television and viral advertising, with the initial attention coming from its offbeat and ethereal ad campaign by ad agency Modernista featuring "Ms. Hope."

While these ads were almost universally seen as creepy, they actually began a product buzz among adults ages 18-34 during their first airing July 9, according to YouGov's Brand Index. Surveying 5,000 people daily, the Index found that this spike occurred at the same time as a sudden drop in BlackBerry-related buzz.

In Interpret's survey, the BlackBerry Curve is still viewed as both smarter and more productive than both the Pre and the 3G S. The Curve was one of the best selling smartphones of 2009 before the 3G S and Pre were released, and was actually NPD's best seller in the first quarter of the year. However, the device ranks abysmally low on the coolness scale, and the firm says it's important to have a device that exudes coolness to gain an increased mindshare.

And as Palm's recent follow-up viral ad campaign featuring former Seinfeld writer Peter Mehlman said, "Either you're cool, or you're not."

Interpret analyst Michael Gartenberg said this morning that mindshare leads to market share; so Palm has carved itself a comfortable niche in the public's view of the smartphone business. It may not be as cool as the iPhone, but it's smarter and more productive, and is seen as much more balanced than any of its competitors.

We'll soon see what effect this balance has when NPD releases its latest quarterly sales data.

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