Motorola Tries to Sustain its Edge

razr%20slider.jpg

Cnet has a good article on the challenge Motorola is facing at sustaining the momentum created by its smash Razr. The company has just announced a new line of phones, much of which appear to be refreshes of current products. Cnet says:

Motorola’s latest products, which will all be available this summer, clearly take the company in a new direction. Instead of concentrating solely on style and design, it has added more functionality such as 3G, or third-generation, network support and multimedia features.

But critics say Motorola’s new products are nothing more than souped-up versions of devices the company has already been selling. Four of the phones highlighted Tuesday, in fact, were new versions of existing products.

Do you need a smash hit to follow up a smash hit? Or is building on the platform with incremental evolution also a workable solution?

The mobile phone category is nothing if not fad driven. To my eye the problem with the new version of the flip phone is that it does not look different enough from the original Razr, which has been rev’d several times since it first came out, but each time it was quite a subtle change. The original succeeded because it was an order of magnitude break from the past, and these new versions do not seem to do enough to take a significant step from the last generation to really look different. The new Razr seems more like a mid-life refresh on a car (new headlights, tailights), than it does a whole new design (which it is).

Samsung in particular has stepped up on the aesthetics and form factor front to challenge Motorola (to the point of almost mimicing many of the Razr styling cues), so it’s incumbent on Moto to keep moving the game ahead or they lose the all-important factor of instant recognition.

But at the same time Motorola can’t veer too wildly from its established style or it loses coherence of its brand identity and, in particular, the “brand” of Razr. As CEO Ed Zander says, “The Razr is more than a product, it’s a brand. When I reach for a tissue, I grab a Kleenex. When I order a soda, I say I want a Coke. And even when I talk about an MP3, I call it an iPod. The Razr is also a brand, and we will market that for years to come.” OK, so there’s a bit of hubris there, but certainly the Razr has established a very strong presence in the market.

Is keeping the phone looking largely the same and adding on more features the right move? In some ways this goes against the spirit of the original Razr, which was by conventional measures a rather mediocre phone: not a very good camera, call quality only OK, not great battery life, and the UI was criticized for some usability issues. What carried it was its style and super slim profile. Razr didn’t become a hit by trying to be the highest performing phone, it had other priorities.

Adding more and improved features is not in and of itself a bad thing, and in many cases is an imperative. However, if they are not integrated well, and if the product loses the essence that brought it to prominence in the first place then its brand is threatened. The Razr brand is not based on features, it’s based on a style and a  personality. Nurturing of that style and personality is more important to sustained competitive edge than adding to the feature checklist.

As Gizmodo put it, “You gave people something unique we all wanted to put in our pockets. Please do that again.”