Nokia and BlackBerry are betting on smartphone nostalgia

Memories are short in the world of consumer electronics. Probably for the best when it comes to certain brands. This week at Mobile World Congress, two companies are attempting to reignite those good feelings after a decade of disappointment.

Ten years ago, Nokia and BlackBerry were flying high. Both were among the most trusted and purchased names in mobile, only to have those numbers drop off a cliff, when a single handset came along and changed the game forever.

The brands share similar trajectories over the past decade, filled with foot dragging and belated attempts at reinvention, and this week at the world’s largest smartphone show, both will be reborn at the hands of third-parties. HMD, in Nokia’s case, a newly formed Finish company born at the hands of former employees, looking to bring the one-time mobile leader’s name back to the smartphone space.

BlackBerry has the decidedly more enviable position of a licensing partnership with TCL, a billion dollar Chinese corporation best known for its TVs, that has managed to make some headway in the States with its Alcatel sub-brand. For BlackBerry, the partnership is a well-timed lifeline — the company has struggled to keep its head above water in recent years. For TCL, it’s simply a chance to capitalize on good memories and expand its smartphone portfolio into the enterprise.

It’s an interesting bet for TCL and HMD, and a broader test of brand loyalties. Can good feelings from a decade ago trump recent disappointments? And do names and logos mean more to consumers than the actual companies and people calling shots behind the scenes?

A tale of two dusty brands


It seems like TCL’s BlackBerry ambitions are pretty modest. “We asked if people would consider a physical keyboard,” TCL/BlackBerry Mobility GM Bruce Walpole told TechCrunch yesterday. “25 percent of people said they would consider it.” He added that if half of that 25 percent picked up the KeyOne, the company would be plenty satisfied. The company even tossed around the word “niche” a few times during our conversation.

Perhaps those modest expectations come with having the backing of a multi-billion dollar corporation. If the KeyOne fails, it likely won’t have a tremendous impact on the company’s bottom line. HMD, on the other hand, has entered this week’s show with far more bluster. The company has been talking up its Nokia relaunch as an announcement of game changing proportions.

And while the company hasn’t necessarily delivered on its promise of disruption, it’s certainly delivered on volume, with three new phones. The company already unveiled the Nokia 6 for the Chinese market recently — this phone will soon be going global too.

HMD is all-in with the Nokia brand because it has to be. The company was created with the primary purpose of distributing Nokia-branded handsets. If these devices fail to entice the smartphone buying public, then HMD will likely fail along with it. It’s a lot to hang on brand loyalty as a key differentiator in an already overcrowded market.

Nokia lost this fight once already, a sentiment perfectly captured in 2011 by the company’s then-CEO, Stephen Elop, who penned a memo to his staff that was equal parts hopeless and hopeful. The “Burning Platform” memo describes a company at the end of its rope, likening the experience to man trapped on an oil rig in the in the middle of the ocean.

“There is a pertinent story about a man who was working on an oil platform in the North Sea,” Elop wrote. “He woke up one night from a loud explosion, which suddenly set his entire oil platform on fire. In mere moments, he was surrounded by flames.”

Of course, we know how the story ends. Nokia didn’t jump in time. The company, which boasted a global smartphone market share of around 50 percent the year the iPhone arrived on the scene, was nearing single digits by the time the memo was issued – and the bleeding would only continue from there.

The company referred to the KeyOne as BlackBerry’s first device without “compromises,” an implicit acknowledgement that all previous devices had fallen short of consumer expectations in one way or another

BlackBerry/TCL, for their part, seem to acknowledge that they have lost the hearts of a once rabidly loyal fanbase when it failed to keep up with the promises of the iPhone. In our conversation, the company referred to the KeyOne as BlackBerry’s first device without “compromises,” an implicit acknowledgement that all previous devices had fallen short of consumer expectations in one way or another.

The physical keyboard is certainly a key part of the device’s appeal, both in terms of hoping to recapture users who still miss the feature after years of going touchscreen only, while heavily playing into a sense of nostalgia. With the arrival of the device formally known as the Mercury, which pays more than a passage homage to earlier devices, it seems we may have finally entered the era of smartphone nostalgia.

Here’s to simpler times

HMD’s 3310 reboot is even more on the nose than BlackBerry’s offering. It’s a device whose primary raison d’être is playing upon all of those warm-and-fuzzy feelings Nokia diehard fans have for their old devices. It’s a fairly novel concept for a space so defined by a constant drumbeat toward innovation. But nostalgia alone won’t be enough to keep the brand afloat.

But smartphones are not diners. People aren’t driven by the same impulses when buying smartphones and hamburgers. Red meat will fill up your belly for the rest of the day. A good handset should last a few years.

Nostalgia alone is a bad reason to buy a phone. It’s a decent starting point if you want to get the word out in a crowded market. After all, it’s hard to imagine anyone paying nearly as close of attention to HMD’s launch this week had it not been tied to the Nokia brand. And a TCL enterprise handset launched under the Alcatel banner almost certainly wouldn’t have garnered the same notice as “the rebirth of BlackBerry.” But you need a lot more than branding to hang your hat on here.

Of the two companies, TCL’s play seems by far the safer. Its modest expectations are coupled with different use cases. While companies now tell you to bring your own device, recent high profile hackings highlight the vulnerability of hardware. A company that promises an end-to-end security solution could prove quite appealing to big companies who have long since switched over to iPhones and their ilk.

Of all the leading smartphone companies, Samsung focused the most on security. But BlackBerry, which continues to exist as a software and services company independently of TCL, has been doing this for a long time. User-facing solutions like its DTEK app, which offers a security rating, make the concept more accessible.

And hey, with Samsung still reeling from the Note 7 debacle, the timing to launch such a device is about as good as it’s going to get.

HMD’s play, on the other hand, seems to be almost entirely nostalgia driven. The devices do a decent job playing into the company’s legacy of budget handsets that were long popular in the developing world, but not nearly enough to distinguish the new Nokias from all the cheap handsets out there.

“There are a lot of legendary phone models in Nokia’s history,” HMD’s chief product officer (and Nokia ex-pat) Juha Sarvikas said in a briefing ahead of launch. “We thought long and hard about whether we should be bringing back a legend… and then we decided to remake the 3310.”

It’s hard to imagine we’ll remember this year’s Mobile World Congress as the year of either brand’s triumphant return. What seems far more likely is that they’ll go down as yet another in a long line of attempts to re-launch brands that never fully recovered from the coming of the iPhone.

The public’s expectations for smartphones in 2017 are far too high to be satiated by nostalgia alone.