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Of Samsung Gear reviews and inward-driven brands

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A brand is a collection of images and thoughts in the consumer’s mind. If the brand has a substantial set of regular users, followers or better still, believers, the imagery evoked by the brand is likely to be consistent in the their minds. Having said that, there can be a dichotomy about  a brand if it evokes strong opinions or if the brand has a strong set of believers and non-believers. A case in point: Apple. While the brand’s casual users & strong believers will see it in largely positive light, there is a large group which dislike the brand. The former may love the design and functionality, the latter may see it as overpriced and hyped.

In marketing, brands constantly keep track of non-users (who they may want to convert) and implement various strategies to attract them. A cosmetic brand used largely by lower income groups and perceived to be cheap may want to attract an influential, higher income, sophisticated group. The hallmark of such a strategy is a change usually is in positioning and advertising: the ads look slicker and subtle. But that’s only half the story. The non-believers need a convincing product story to change their perception of a perceived-to-be cheap brand. Going by the stimulus-response theory, someone going around with a placard saying ‘ I am funny’ will not be taken seriously. But if he cracks a few good jokes, the response will be that ‘he is funny’. In other words, the product is the stimulus to evoke a different response.

Over the last few years, Samsung has grown in the smartphone category by offering new products across segments and attracting new consumers. It is a brand liked by many. Yet, it has share of detractors in media and general consumers. Many see it as a me-too brand copying Apple’s iPhone & iPad, a fast follower and tainted with controversy. Samsung has a history of entering a category with a strong competitor and not just giving them a tough time but beating them in market share by being a fast follower. That is exactly what they did with LED TVs. Of course it isn’t just clever marketing or advertising that is responsible for Samsung’s success. A 2011 article in The Economist said:

Samsung’s successes come from spotting areas that are small but growing fast. Ideally the area should also be capital-intensive, making it harder for rivals to keep up. Samsung tiptoes into the technology to get familiar with it, then waits for its moment. It was when liquid-crystal displays grew to 40 inches in 2001 that Samsung took the dive and turned them into televisions. In flash memory, Samsung piled in when new technology made it possible to put a whole gigabyte on a chip.

When it pounces, the company floods the sector with cash. Moving into very high volume production as fast as possible not only gives it a price advantage over established firms, but also makes it a key customer for equipment makers. Those relationships help it stay on the leading edge from then on.

The strategy is shrewd. By buying technology rather than building it, Samsung assumes execution risk not innovation risk. It wins as a “fast follower”, slipstreaming in the wake of pioneers at a much larger scale of production.

In the mobile category, Samsung took about 3 years to come out with a serious contender to the iPhone: the S series phone. To me it was a clear case of copying. A lot has happened in the category and with Samsung since then. The brand is uttered in the same breath as Apple or iPhone nowadays (a staggering marketing victory by any means) and many consider it to be a better product and maybe even a cooler one to own. The success has come from a mix of product & marketing interventions. Samsung executives say that they are driven by the consumer. When Asian consumers said drawing characters is easier with a pen, Samsung created the Note, a hugely successful variant.

In my view, despite the public posturing of being outwardly driven (consumer centric), I think what drives Samsung is an inward-looking need: shed the fast-follower image and out-innovate Apple. After the litigation it is also perhaps the need to spite Apple and get one up on them (as seen in their ads knocking the iPhone and Apple fans).  It reminds me of what Kiran Khalap, founder of Chlorophyll called ‘Pakistan Positioning‘ in a different context. “When you ask Pakistan, ‘Who are you?’ they say ‘We are not India’. In a way, what Samsung has set out to do is just that. By definition, it is about satisfying an internal need to be different, superior and first to market than Apple. And that is a far more burning ambition for the company than putting the consumer’s needs first.

So the need to (a) out-innovate Apple (b) be seen as superior to Apple (c) be cooler than Apple and (d) beat Apple to be first in the market are perhaps the reasons behind Samsung’s product launches and marketing efforts of late. Every phone is packed with a laundry list of features, the marketing & advertising is nothing short of bombardment and celebrities like LeBron have been roped to give the brand both credibility and cool quotient. The need to beat Apple is perhaps what drove them to launch Samsung Gear. Ever since the ‘iWatch’ rumours have been floating since early last year, there was speculation about when pple will launch a wearable device. Samsung simply had to beat them to it. As Ars Technica said, The Samsung Galaxy Gear says “First!” in hardware form, like the internet trolls.

In fact almost all the reviews of Gear have been brutal:’the Gear is a human-interface train wreck, ‘frankly, I’m not sure exactly what it’s supposed to be‘ are some of the comments. A Samsung executive purportedly said that it lacks something special. There have been reports of Samsung cheating on benchmark tests (Samsung has denied it without offering specifics) with Note 3 recently; that too is a manifestation of the need to be seen as better than competition (read iPhone) at any cost. The Samsung Gear may well go on to sell in truck loads (I doubt it) despite the critics panning it – as with box office hits and movie critics.

All this perception about Samsung and analysing what drives the brand may not be of any consequence to the average buyer – who simply seeks a great list of features at an affordable price for his gadgets. The aura of the brand is an important factor too and Samsung scores highly in that department as far as the average consumer is concerned. The brand is seen as the one that socked it to Apple and gave the Android & non-Apple fan a new found confidence and even aggression against Apple. And it is a brand which offers choice – there is a Samsung phone for every budget.

So while Samsung is extremely successful in both garnering market share & profits, I feel it is still seeking acceptance from a certain segment of the market: the high end consumer who loves Apple’s products and the influential opinion leaders on the web & social media. Samsung has applied the ‘stimulus-response’ theory to them by launching a slew of products aimed to create a positive perception, backed by huge financial muscle. In my view, such efforts will not help the brand as long its primary driver is the urge to spite Apple. So while the public posturing is that of a consumer-driven firm the inward looking nature of product development & marketing will have limited appeal.Agree or disagree? Do comment in.

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A marketing communications professional with a keen interest in all things advertising. I share creative ads and views on the ad industry here. Views are personal. See Disclaimer for more.

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