Branding for success for next generation computing

Its interesting whichever way you examine and dissect it- but the question never ceases to intrigue and stimulate- why did PC vendors lose out in the mobile computing race?

And the answer often is as clear as mud- but some of the common answers are:

1. The PC race had regressed to a race of efficiency, where cost structures and operational efficiency drove success rather than grounds up innovation.

2.  Microsoft’s getting utterly blindsided in expanding their Windows franchise onto small screens.

3. The emergence of ARM as a leader in the low computing space served as the springboard for the likes of Apple, Google and Palm to develop proprietary platforms that grew smarter over time.

4. Unlike PCs, the mobile industry was dominated in the earlier days by a distribution channel that was as powerful as it was demanding—the operator.

……….and more interesting, thoughtful and profound reasons that are really not the scope of this piece.

Indeed one of the key decisions that the leaders of the mobile computing industry made was to break all brand associations with the legacy personal computer industry.

Let me explain- at the dawn of the mobile computing industry in the early 2000s, computers had outgrown their promise. They were these large clunky legacy machines that could do anything you wanted, as long as you were willing to be chained to a desk.  While Compaq, Dell, Acer and a host of other PC vendors used the 80s and 90s to build incredibly successful brands, by the 2000s, they were as exciting as Home Depot opening yet another megastore. They were starting be perceived as stodgy, cold, inflexible and utterly boring companies who did little beyond changing the color of computer cases from beige to grey.

The only two who really won in the desktop computing space were two brands- Windows from Microsoft and Pentium from Intel. However 2 decades of the Win-tel combination had had its day under the sun.  Windows and Intel had burned an image in people’s minds that would prove to be indelible.

Enter RIM with its BlackBerry and Palm with the Palm Pilot. These were the cool kids on the block, ones that innovated, and once that showed promise for the future. These companies didn’t sell hardware or software, they sold a promise of limitless connectivity without borders. They sold a dream of mobile computing.  And most importantly, they came without the baggage or perceptions that Microsoft and Intel came with.

This exercise in branding was followed by Apple. Macintosh became the iMac. Subtle but critical- while the Macintosh had stood for the rebel community, about ease of use, and about emotion over rationale- the iMac brand, created a franchise that only a company like Apple could pull off. The iMac meant all the things that Steve Jobs showed in his introductory speech- but it stood for a couple of things more than any- inspiration and emotional connectedness to the individual. And it stood for the future.

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Apple had pulled off an incredible branding coup- it had stretched the Macintosh brand into the 21st century. And it had created an incredible stage for the future success of the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. And it didn’t mess with the formula during successive iterations of each product line- an iPhone has always remained an iPhone through various vintages.

And Google has done the same with the Android brand. Think about this for a second- would Android have achieved the same degree of success had Google rebranded it GPhone or Google Dial or something equally esoteric? Would a signature multi-coloured Google branded logo received the same enthusiasm as the chubby green robot? What if YouTube had been rebranded Google Tube?

Android represents counter culture, it represents futuristic interaction, and while being approachable and friendly. In hindsight, one of Google’s best decisions to leave the Android brand as it was- and as it was meant to be.  Not altogether dissimilar to the way Toyota handled the Prius brand. That’s why the Android brand is way more popular than assorted HTC Incredibles, Motorola Droids or Samsung Galaxys.

This is where Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon have their task cut out for them. The very mention of Windows and Phone in the same sentence is bound to leave people shaking their heads in frustration- the “Windows” term represents everything that people don’t want in a mobile device- crashes, freeze screens, viruses…..ad infinitum.  Microsoft has had mixed success in this space- the incredible success of the X-Box and the dismal disaster that was the Zune and Kin brands, so it remains to be seen how they approach the mobile space.

Facebook has the same problem with legacy that plagues Microsoft- somehow the terms Facebook Phone are enough to get people spooked about their privacy- Facebook already knows too much about me, would I trust it in my pocket? To round out the last of the big 3— Amazon must break its association as an online supermarket if it is to make a credible foray into consumer electronics. The Kindle and the Fire brands are the beginnings of some intelligent choices by Amazon, but it has a long way to go before it matches the clout of Android or the iPhone.

So if there is a lesson to be learnt here- its for the Sonys and Toshibas and Nokias of the world. Your brand can only stretch so far before its past shenanigans and legacy associations catch up to it. Instead learn from the pain in building and eventually succeeding in establishing brands like PlayStations (NOT the Playstation Phone!) , Android and Photoshop. The reward is an eternity of consumer passion that is quite indescribable.

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