Can Nokia manage a second shot at the US market?

I’m going to interrupt the Cloudy Days for Data series again to muse this time about marketing…

I’ve been very pessimistic on Nokia’s future prospects in the United States but there’s no distinction in that stance; so has just about every other pundit.  It seems like every time Nokia had something novel to offer, whether it be new devices like the promising internet tablets or a potentially hot service like Ovi, the ball wound up fumbled… sometimes by design.

A large part of that design was the stubborn insistance on model numbers over names, despite the allure shown by competing products like the iPhone and Blackberry.  It’s been long known that this sort of branding resonates loudly with US citizens, so when Nokia portfolio manager Ira Frimere declares in a recent Computerworld article:

“I’ve learned it’s not what I like, but what my customer likes,” he said.

…I have to wonder when this epiphany occurred for him.  No offense meant to Mr. Frimere, but I recall numerous conversations in Nokia US offices over this subject and that was the one consistent theme behind them all.  It did not matter what Nokia executives thought; wrapping product branding and marketing strategies around customer needs and wants is paramount.  Marketing 101.

That is not at all to say that nomenclature alone determines a product’s success.  That is certainly not the sole driver behind RIM, Samsung and Apple quickly and easily overtaking Nokia in the US smartphone market.  But it is certainly an important psychological aspect that cannot be cavalierly dismissed.

Another quote by Frimere, as follows:

“Our strategy is to get as many devices into U.S. carriers as possible,” Frimere said in an interview. “We want to be No. 1 in the U.S.”

…is another I’ve heard ad nauseum, both in and out of Nokia’s halls.  It was a rallying cry for us (current and former Nokia US employees) in 2006 but the enthusiasm fizzled with job, site and market share losses.  The main problem has been that the obvious actions have not matched the stated goals in too many instances.  I can only hope that there are corporate moves of which the rest of us are unaware– but that hope grows thinner by each market-share-sliding quarter.

The most recent buzz has been more about operating systems, though, than naming conventions.  Nokia’s homegrown Linux variant, Maemo, is poised for a refresh both in user interface and device host.  It’s a little late to many of the myriad developers still fiercely loyal to the novel platform, but Maemo is slowly starting to garner the sort of media cache usually reserved for hard products like phones.  Knowing the specifications and the capable team behind the operating system, I’m guardedly optimistic on its prospects.  The only thing that can get in the way of Nokia now is Nokia itself– has the company truly managed to find a way to straddle the precarious razor divide between open source software and for-profit devices?  Can it successfully manage the necessary transition from Symbian‘s horizontal success to the more vertical computing needs going forward?

To be fair to Frimere and Nokia in general, I found another quote by IDC analyst Sean Ryan to be rather disingenuous:

“Mention Nokia to the average American and nobody has ever heard of it.”

Tell that to the multitude of Nokia-toting people I encounter every day.  In fact I cannot go a single day without hearing that default ringtone emerging from some unexpected location.  So, true, Nokia’s current share is too small to sustain, but there was a time when Nokia was king in the US.  People still remember; when they find out I used to work for the company, they regale me with stories of the indestructable brick phone they still miss.  There is pent-up demand for Nokia– the continuing challenge is all about capitalization.

The problem is that not only has Nokia fumbled the ball, they consistently fail to recover it even with a collective eye on it.  Nokia claims they will prevail– the only question now is, has the game passed them by?  I hope to hear from Ira Frimere and others on that score.


Thanks to Stephen Gadsby for the Computerworld article link.


13 responses to “Can Nokia manage a second shot at the US market?

  1. As long as Nokia continue treating US customers as 2nd class customers as they do now they have no chance on achieving No. 1. Let me give you an example. I have a US Nokia 5800 XM phone and I also purchased a European one to bring as a gift. Let’s compare the two:

    1. Navigation software: US: 0 days trial, Other: 30 days trial

    2. Music: US:0 downloadable songs,Other: 100 free downloadable songs.

    3. OTA forware upgrade: US: No, Other: Yes

    The US customer support is horrible. I cannot compare it to other countries though.

    I am sure if I’ll spend few more minutes I come with few more examples on how Nokia treats the US customer but I think you got the point.


    • Thanks for your thoughts. I wonder, though, how much of that is due to the US being so carrier-driven…

      • The US may be carrier-centric, but a high profile player like Nokia could change the face of the US wireless industry with solid marketing. Unfortunately, they approach the US market with Euro ideas…

  2. Agreed Frank. Nokia had the means and momentum in 2005, and did try to change the game, but competitors like LG, Motorola and Samsung were too eager to cozy up to US carriers and take the market share Nokia was willing to let slide while the tide turned… and the troubles that affected electronics retailers (CompUSA, Circuit City, et al) didn’t help Nokia’s direct-to-retail efforts either.

    Granted Nokia’s US marketing efforts have been lame to non-existant, but even solid marketing can’t overcome the power of desperate collusion.

  3. US market is carrier driven and Nokia wants to drive. In the rest of the world it is working so why introduce different culture into company if non-action isn’t significantly hurting bottom line?

    Internal disruption can cost much more than promised gains (which may never realise).

    • I’m not sure if I’m interpreting your first point properly… are you saying it may not be worth Nokia’s effort to regain US share?

      • It may be not worth if it requires too much internal change.

        In recent years we saw many European companies which dived deeply in American market and its corporate culture and have been burned badly, sometimes veeery badly.

        I think Nokia is its heart very conservative company, observed this all, judged things and decided that morphing for sake of US market isn’t worth it.

  4. I can see that vvaz, except for 2 things:

    1) Nokia keeps swearing they are serious about the US market

    2) There are powerful forces involved that try to drive creation of carrier-dominated markets as regions mature

    In other words, there’s a good chance that many regions will ultimately look a lot like the US and if Nokia can’t succeed here, what happens when the developing markets finish developing? 😉

    Of course the question becomes moot if Nokia gets completely out of devices…

    • Ad. 1 – and what they should say – that it is immature, greed driven, sandbox?

      Ad. 2 – the biggest at the moment mobile market EU: only over dead bodies of Brussels commissars; for years they are working to cut down telecoms with support of European Parliament; in India and China Nokia representatives are speaking directly with governments. I think future will look more like EU than like USA.

      • 1) What I’d prefer to see over hyperbole or misdirection is objective honesty. If Nokia is serious about the US market fine– but start doing a better job at the obvious actions matching the claim. Otherwise, I’d prefer the company come out directly and say “adios America”. Anything in-between benefits no one as far as I can see.

        2) Actually I hope future developing markets do end up looking more like the EU than US. I just highly doubt it. Greed is a powerful force and seems to prevail too often…

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