The battle for the consumer's pocket

The mobile phone is no longer a mere communication device, and increasingly sophisticated models have created a highly competitive marketplace.

The mobile phone is no longer a mere communication device, and increasingly sophisticated models have created a highly competitive marketplace.

For four days in January, South Beach Miami's Ocean Drive was transformed from a trendy beachfront hangout to Motorola Mile, the ultimate in fan-immersion experiences. It was a branding exercise of Super Bowl proportions and an example of how mobile-device companies across the board are connecting with consumers in more personally engaging ways than ever before.

"There was no way you could miss Motorola if you went to Ocean Drive," says Marc Altieri, VP of marketing communications at Leader Enterprises, Motorola's sports marketing partner.

Leading up to Super Bowl Sunday, the normally traffic-clogged 10-block stretch of cafes and shops became a pedestrian-only boardwalk full of relevant, compelling - and Motorola-branded - visuals.

From NFL player appearances and end-zone dance competitions to a massive oceanfront field on which fans gathered for contests, games, and sports clinics, the effort garnered 24/7 attention from onlookers - and drove nationwide media coverage all week.

In addition to events, informational street-corner kiosks allowed consumers to experience Motorola devices firsthand - to "touch and feel and walk away with an understanding of what they can expect from Motorola products," says Tracey Thiele, head of North American consumer PR for the Chicago-based company.

Less talk, more action

In a market flooded with options, innovation in both product offerings and outreach is a must. The US wireless handset market was expected to top $17.8 billion in 2006, according to Arlington, VA-based Telecommunications Industry Association. That's a 19% increase over 2005 and higher than many analysts forecasted. Globally, more than 990 million units were sold, many with functionalities far beyond placing calls.

"Even three or four years ago, you talked on a phone - that's all," says Keith Nowak, media relations manager for White Plains, NY-based Nokia North America, the industry's current leader. Today, he says, mobile devices are available for almost any need imaginable - and more are on the way. To stand out in such a competitive market, Nowak says, it's all about "reaching out and touching consumers."

He adds that Nokia and PR partner Ketchum rely on traditional media relations to spread the Nokia connection message, reaching out to publications covering topics from technology to fashion. But a global initiative, brought to the US last year in Chicago and New York, is the introduction of Nokia Flagship brand experience stores, in which consumers can not only buy products, but also simply interact with them.

In massive stores with plasma screens and color-shifting walls, employees/brand ambassadors introduce visitors to Nokia's lineup; last year, that included 50 new phones, from basic voice-centric products to those optimized for e-mail, music, digital cameras, and GPS navigation.

The rationale behind the Nokia Flagship Stores, Nowak says, is twofold. With so much phone functionality now available, he says, "consumers either don't know [about it], or they have an idea, but are scared to try." And even if store visitors don't make a purchase, Nowak says, at least they'll be exposed and educated.

In terms of understanding how to reach distinct target groups, few mobile-device companies have better insight than Lincolnshire, IL-based Firefly Mobile, which manufactures phones specifically for the 12-and-under set.

"We have an interesting challenge, reaching two audiences at the same time, talking to both kids and parents, and understanding what's important to each," says Jeff Jones, Firefly's marketing director.

Another challenge for the brand is keeping up with the ever-increasing sophistication of the 5- to 12-year-old market itself, especially as more and more manufacturers enter the category.

Working with DCPR in Chicago, Firefly positions its devices as tools that give a sense of security, teach responsibility, and instill a sense of self-esteem. "It's part of the growing-up process," Jones explains.

Another media relations strategy is drawing attention to features the phones don't have, such as texting capabilities, says Katie McDougall, the brand's representative at DCPR. "Not every feature on adult phones is appropriate for young children," she notes.

At the other end of the spectrum are LG Electronics' Chocolate devices, meant to appeal to "fashion- and functionality-oriented folks looking for the newest, latest, and greatest," says Melissa Elkins, the company's senior manager of PR.

Positioning its then-launching line of new Chocolate colors as "the coolest mp3 player in a cell phone," Elkins says, at the end of 2006, San Diego-based LG worked with Ogilvy PR for an integrated effort that included event sponsorships, one-on-one user interaction, word-of-mouth viral, and plenty of media-specific PR.

In addition, LG tapped singer Rihanna to serve as Chocolate's brand ambassador, her endorsement campaign culminating in a media- and celebrity-packed Chocolate-sponsored party after the 2006 Billboard Awards. The event, "allowed us to talk to - and get phones in the hands of - celebrity influencers," she says.

These niche-style, experience-oriented efforts seem to be the way of the future in mobile-device outreach, especially as marketers prepare for new levels of device convergence and the impact of Apple's iPhone in June. Because what really matters, executives agree, is what consumers want.

"We meet needs," reminds Elkins. "That's the most important thing for anyone when they launch a product into the market."

Hot phones

LG VX8600

Why it's a hottie: The successor to LG's trendsetting Chocolate phones, the VX8600 is chic and svelte, the Young Hollywood fashionista of the mobile-phone marketplace.

Motorola KRZR K1m

Why it's a hottie: This slim, striking handset might not have as many bells and whistles as some other mobile phones, but style-conscious consumers rave about its sleek look and form-fitting design.

Nokia N76

Why it's a hottie: More style-savvy than many of Nokia's recent devices, this sleek flip-top appeals to consumers with executive-level needs and fashion-forward tastes.

Sony Ericsson W660

Why's it's a hottie: Part Walkman, part mobile phone, this slinky, gold-trimmed hand-held is the image of music-meets-communications convergence.

Apple iPhone

Why it's a hottie: Apple's cell phone/widescreen iPod/Web-browsing mobile device is scheduled to descend upon the US market in June. Though its initial $500 price tag may be prohibitive, some consumers argue the iPhone is well worth that in sex appeal alone.

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