Back for good? Reviving Nokia and BlackBerry

18 September 2017

It's just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right, with your hands on your hips, you bring your knees in tight

Everyone loves a comeback, and 2017 has been full of them. It's enough to make you scream "what year is it?".

In tech, our time warp moment has been the return of Nokia and BlackBerry. Both brands are back from the dead, and the excitement has been palpable. We saw it first hand when the paired unveiled new phones as part of Mobile World Congress earlier this year where the new-old devices dominated coverage and clicks, and this has continued throughout the year.

The positive sentiment isn't surprising - Nokia is responsible for seven of the top 10 best-selling phones of all time, and BlackBerry was making smartphones before they were cool. Could this be a new chapter for these iconic trendsetter brands, or will their stories end badly when the nostalgia runs dry?

Nokia 8

Not quite Nokia 

The Nokia of old no longer exists. The company formerly known as Nokia was purchased by Microsoft, and subsequently renamed Microsoft Devices. It turned out that nobody wanted Windows phones after all, and Microsoft wrote off the $7 billion purchase just a year later. Now, a Finnish start-up named HMD Global has acquired the rights to use the Nokia brand on new phones, and notably, is full of ex-Nokia employees.

HMD CEO Florian Seiche is one of these returning Nokia staffers, and worked at the company prior to and after its Microsoft acquisition. While Seiche describes the power of the Nokia brand as humbling, he's already turning his attention to the next generation of smartphone owners.

"We obviously see a lot of the previous Nokia fans reaching out, being vocal, cheering us on along on our journey," said Seiche. "At the same time, we're seeing a tremendous positive response from the next generation of consumers."

Based on current sales, Seiche says the majority of people buying Nokia Android smartphones are under 30; an audience that wouldn't have used a Nokia phone for quite some time, if ever. While this generation might not be familiar with the Nokia brand, Seiche believes the same traits that drew people to Nokia in the past will draw people to the new Nokia. 

"The key criteria the brand stands for, the identity, is still everything that Nokia was building and symbolising in the phone category over the past many, many years," said Seiche. "The quality, simplicity, ease of use, great design, but if you go beyond the product related attributes: the humanness, and the sense of purpose beyond the technology."

"Those were the things Nokia authentically stood for as a brand, and our goal is how we can now bring these attributes or build on these true authentic Nokia brand attributes and provide them to the consumers in today's environment."

Given the size and saturation of the smartphone market, it's becoming harder and harder for individual phone-makers to standout. Over 1.5 billion phones were sold in 2016, which was a 5% increase on 2015. Manufacturers are increasingly adding bells and whistles in attempt to make a splash, but Seiche doesn't believe that this an effective way to get potential customers interested in your phones. 

"[We] have the ability to actually tie the consumer interest back to almost a bigger purpose or a bigger theme, like quality, like many of the powerful aspects of the Nokia brand," said Seiche. 

"We've seen how tough it is for a new brand to build that, and that's why we are so humbled and proud to write that next chapter of Nokia brand, and all of our focus is on giving this next generation the best possible experience on their new Nokia phones."

BlackBerry KEYone

Not just for CrackBerries

BlackBerry is in a similar boat to Nokia; the company bowed out of the hardware game near the end of 2016. Following this, BlackBerry entered a partnership with Chinese manufacturer TCL, best known for its Alcatel smartphones. TCL has the exclusive rights to build BlackBerry branded smartphones, while BlackBerry is responsible for developing the security-focused version of Android installed on the new phones.

Much like Nokia, BlackBerry is wrestling with the question of how to build a new audience. BlackBerry's Head of Asia Pacific Sam Skontos isn't expecting eighteen year-olds to run out and buy a BlackBerry handsets, but one of his biggest challenges is positioning BlackBerry devices as attractive to a generation who might have never used or seen one before is.

"Younger people are always going to be blinded by the glitziness of the other brands that make all these outstanding devices and great design," said Skontos. "There's an element of image and so forth, but once they get over that - which is probably going to be towards the end of their 20s or early 30s - and they start realising 'it's a slab of glass, my phone looks no different to anyone else's, okay, what's this BlackBerry all about?'"

"We need to make sure that 18 year-olds know we exist, know what we stand for, know our brand positioning, and as they get older, I'm pretty confident they'll want to switch over."

To achieve this, Skontos says BlackBerry has to - and will be - a truly unique player in the smartphone game.

"Everyone is copying each other, Samsung comes out with an 18:9 aspect ratio display, and now you're going to see a glut of handsets with that type of screen. BlackBerry is not going to be one of those followers. BlackBerry will be different."

"Different in the sense that it will be a brand positioned for people that want to be different. For people who don't want to have same old design, the same slab of glass in black or grey, and [don't want to be] following everyone else, following Apple or Samsung."

In an industry that is well and truly dominated by Apple and Samsung, that's the crux of the matter. We've seen plenty of premium smartphones that are as good (if not better) than what the two titans pump out on year on year, but we're yet to see anyone make any major market share inroads in that flagship space. Nostalgia is next to useless if no one actually wants your device; it's one thing to read about a BlackBerry revival, it's another to go out and buy out the phone. 

"Nostalgia can only go so far," said Skontos. "[The fanatics] are always going to be there, the guys that just love the Nokia brand, that love the brand BlackBerry, and I bet you if we launched a Palm tomorrow, there'll be some Palm fanatics wanting to buy one too."

"However, as a business, you can't just rely on those fanatics, cause as they get older, either they'll move away cause their fanaticism is diluted, or there's fewer cause some are dropping off. Therefore, the brand has to stand up on its own two feet, it has to survive, it has to be positioned in a way to be attractive to more than just fanatics."

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