Google’s Android mobile OS stands to have a powerful impact on smartphone brands. As a new mobile platform it has the potential to be both brand disruptor and brand creator, upsetting incumbent brands and serving as a potent platform for a whole class of new ones. We saw this happen when the Microsoft Windows platform dominated the PC market in the 1990’s and beyond, helping new software brands take root at the expense of traditional players. Now—in mobile— it may be Google’s turn.
Android lowers the cost of market entry
Google Android is a free, highly-capable and customizable smartphone operating system that intends to change the game in mobile brands. It’s designed to compete with the iPhone as a smartphone platform, and it’s ready for apps, tweaks, skins and other enhancements by any company desiring a smartphone market presence. By being “free,” Android dramatically lowers the cost of entry into the smartphone market, the fastest growing and most profitable wireless sector. Thanks to Google, a new set of players can enter the smartphone arena, each one building a brand based on its own implementation of Android.
The smartphone is a computer
Who might these new players be? Well, if the smartphone is now considered more “computer” than phone, with computer-like capabilities, then the smartphone market is really a computer market. (Thank you, iPhone!) Thus, we can expect traditional PC brands to pile in, as fast as they can contract out handsets and put their brand imprints on Android.
Here come the PC makers
Stacey Higgenbotham at GigaOm has written an excellent analysis of these developments. As she notes, Lenovo, Dell and Acer are ready to make the smartphone plunge with Android. Given Android’s potential, traditional PC brands may emerge as the new smartphone winners, leveraging their computer and marketing expertise. Traditional mobile brands may be the losers, unless (like HTC) they embrace the new computer context.
Smartphone brand—or smartphone commodity?
Just how strong can these new Android-based smartphone brands become? That’s a good question. In her GigaOm article Higgenbotham foresees the possibility of a largely commoditized smartphone landscape, where a standardized mobile OS (like Android) is combined with standardized smartphone handsets and core apps. PC makers could try to differentiate their Android smartphones by custom tweaks to the OS, UI skins and widgets, but these may not be enough. The result could be a sea of look-alike smartphones competing largely on price, much like current PC’s and netbooks.
The Android brand agenda
What is the Android brand agenda in all this? A company’s brand agenda is how the brand intends to advance (or contain) its customers. Google’s customers are advertisers. Google’s brand agenda for Android appears to be the creation of a large mobile search market for advertisers. Lowering barriers to entry for new smartphone brands and ultimately lowering smartphone prices would serve this goal. Android comes with default Google search. It’s reasonable to believe that it’s optimized for Google search.
A mobile market with many competitors, low prices, and many users would suit Google best. That could well be a commodity market.
Google Android: a brand trap?
Smartphone brands that use Google Android need to keep a sharp eye where they’re headed. Android may turn out to be an “easy in” brand trap in which new smartphone brands gain a quick foothold, then find it hard to maintain strategic identity and pricing power. Without a clear brand strategy of their own, PC makers fighting for smartphone share may ultimately discover that their only option is progressively deeper price cuts. They may wind up working for Google instead of their own shareholders.
A smartphone brand strategy for Android
What’s the best brand strategy for a smartphone that uses Android? Conventional notions of “differentiation” will not be enough. If Android is the mobile platform, new smartphones must become customer platforms as strategic enablers for smartphone users. The smartphone must create a new and stronger customer context beyond the commoditizing pull of Android.
In practical terms, smartphone brands must make the smartphone a context phone packed with cultural discovery and innovation. They must enable uses to be more, and to do more, through the software and services they provide. A smartphone brand must become a brand of cultural and creative initiative anchored by personal brand applications that link the brand and the customer in a shared brand journey.
To my mind, anything less than this is bound to wind up on the commodity floor.