Nokia and How to Ruin a Product Launch

I like Nokia.  Before the smart phone era, my favorite phone was a Nokia feature phone.  It seemed to have reception wherever I went.  It was tough.  I never stressed about dropping it.  The sound quality on calls was great.  It was pleasant to hold.  I don't remember the exact model, but I remember it was $1 when I signed up for a plan with Sprint.  I've never had a cell phone that good again.  The allure of email and web on the go made me an early adopter with smartphones, but there's not a smartphone on the market that sends and receives calls as reliably as that old Nokia.

Today, Nokia is in trouble.  Apple and Google caught them flatfooted.  They made some reasonable smartphones, but they couldn't create a platform.  Platforms drive smartphone sales today.  After a really interesting attempt at Meego with the N9, Nokia jumped into an agreement with Microsoft.  They are the flagship partner for Windows Phone.

The original Nokia Windows phones were quite good.  The hardware build quality was wonderful, and Windows Phone 7 was very responsive and usable.  Although I'm an iPhone user, I was genuinely intrigued by the Lumia family.  I also appreciate that Microsoft worked to create real innovation in the mobile UI.  The tiles of Metro are a great contrast to Apple's icon grid, and for quick access to information they are arguably superior.

Unfortunately the Lumia hasn't sold well to date.  Microsoft has further exacerbated the problem by dropping Windows Phone 7 in favor of a Windows 8 everywhere strategy.  Although much of the UI is carried forward, the base of the OS and the developer stack are different.  I think this is a customer and developer hostile move, but Microsoft is in a desperate and precarious situation.  They don't have a toehold in the fastest growing computing platform.  It's an existential threat.

Nokia Lumia 920

Nokia, to its credit, moved quickly and built an amazing Windows 8 phone: the Lumia 920.  Nokia hardware expertise shines with this phone.  The hardware is attractive, and hands on reports say the build quality is great too.  It's reported to have an industry leading camera and a beautiful screen.  Nokia has built its own features on top of Windows 8.  This is a promising device.  Of course it's not enough to build a great phone–you also have to market it.  And here is where Nokia dropped the ball.

I work in advertising.  In our industry, expectations have never been higher, timelines have never been shorter and budgets have never been tighter.  Every day we are tasked with doing more with less.  Creative briefs are filed, and concepts have to be returned in record time so that production can begin.

The assets Nokia produced for the Lumia 920 announcement are good, but that's not the problem.  The problem is the video purported to be shot from the phone is fake.  It took very little time for the Internet to notice a reflection that showed a camera was used to shoot the footage.  Nokia claims they never intended to deceive anyone, and even issues a formal apology, but the damage was already done.  Instead of talking about the phone, social influencers instead talked about the fraud.  If only that was the end of it.

Soon after the video was found to be fake, Yousseff Sarhan outed the still photos as fabrications as well.  This time the evidence was how lights appear in relation to aperture.  Nokia's product launch, so critical to the company's success, has turned into a PR fiasco.

How could this have been avoided?  It's possible that the marketing team didn't have access to the phone hardware, so it couldn't be used for the shoot.  It's also possible no one on the team was technical enough to realize the difference, and that their brief just said to highlight certain optical features.  Whatever the cause, there are approaches that could have stopped this before it started.

  • Disclosure.  Something as simple as a subtitle that read "images simulated" would have prevented the ire of the crowd.  The issue here was not using cameras to simulate the product experience.  Instead it was the perception that Nokia was trying to deceive its audience.
  • Wait.  If the product wasn't ready to generate its own collateral, maybe the announcement was made too soon.  I understand Nokia's position is precarious, and they need to capture mind share before they have a phone to capture market share.  Companies like Apple, Valve and Blizzard have shown how well products can perform when they are announced when they are ready, but no sooner.  Nokia's position is no more precarious than Apple in 1998, but Apple didn't announce the iMac until it was ready.

Consumers are more cynical to marketing than ever before.  We have to be very careful with their trust.  We should all learn from Nokia's misstep.

UPDATE: The New York Times weighs in on the matter as well.