Marketing Mobile Phones

Learn how companies market cellular phones in the 21st century ...

Are you an Apple fanboy or an Android power user?

Chances are, whether you're one or the other depends on what you do, what your values are, and how you identify with a brand. Those using iPhones tend to be younger, hip, and value user-friendly devices, while Droid fans are likely to be older, male, and prefer hard technical features to friendly design.

Cell phone marketers are well aware of the factors that affect consumer decision making when purchasing mobile phones – factors that take into account not only aspects like speed, connectivity, and special features, but psychological characteristics like personality, lifestyle, and brand loyalty. This awareness is exemplified in mobile phone advertisements and commercials, which tend to emphasize style and emotion, showing just how a phone could improve a consumer's lifestyle.

Consumer research helps to drive these advertising efforts, informing companies of what their customers want before they even know they want it. Cell phone manufacturers have capitalized on this research with great success, gaining an understanding of the kinds of psychological reactions their products, brands, and advertisements invoke in their customers.

The Psychology of Marketing Cell Phones

Brand and CommercialExplanation of AdvertisementDemographicsPsychological Response Elicited
Apple iPhone 4 “Facetime” Ordinary people are shown using their iPhones 4's “facetime” feature to get in touch with significant others, old friends, and family members. Males, ages 18-65, Females, ages 18-65 Tenderness and Longing: You see individuals using their camera phones to reconnect with loved ones and it elicits feelings of warmth and longing to see old friends. Buy an iPhone 4 to use “Facetime” and reconnect.
Motorola Droid 2 “Instrument of Efficiency A man in a business meeting see's he received a message on his Droid 2. He begins to respond, morphing into a robot as he quickly texts and finishes his business. Males 18-30 Excitement: The Droid 2 is portrayed as a technological marvel, enabling you to excel in the business world. Buy the Droid 2 and turn yourself into “an instrument of efficiency.”
Samsung Galaxy S3 “The Next Big Thing” Apple users awaiting the new iPhone 5 are portrayed as silly for standing in long lines for a product. Samsung users approach them and show off their new Galaxy S3s, which offer similar features and didn't require them to wait in line. The parents of an Apple user then show up in line to wait with the other users. Males 18-30, Females 18-30, Apple users Humor and Envy: Apple users, usually seen as hip, are shown in a comical light because they're waiting for something that “has already arrived.” As Samsung pans the Apple users, the Galaxy S3's features are shown off, eliciting interest from those standing in line.

How do consumers choose between phones?

Do you choose the new, pricy, technologically advanced smart phone, or the budget-sensitive, more traditional flip phone?

The growing mobile market

The U.S. market for mobile phones has grown immensely over the last two decades, according to statistics from the 2011 Mobile Consumer Report.

  • The number of mobile phone subscribers in 1990 was 5 million.
  • The number of mobile phone subscribers in 2008 was 263 million.
  • 86% of American have cell phones.
  • Annual revenues of major service providers total over $150 billion today.

Source: Experian Simmons Consumer Insight

Cell phone manufacturers today offer consumers more choice than ever when purchasing new mobile phones. But developing a new phone is an expensive undertaking, meaning market researchers must help manufacturers determine exactly what consumers want in a phone.

According to “Factors Affecting Consumer Choice of Mobile Phones: Two Studies from Finland,” published in The Journal of Euromarketing, whether or not a consumer chooses between one phone or another is the result of several characteristics, including:

  • Price
  • Brand
  • Size
  • Interface
  • Technical Features

In their study, researchers Heikki Karjaluoto and others write that while factors like price and technical features are more important for older consumers, brand and interface are far more important for younger individuals.

Older consumers tend to value phones that help them manage their time more effectively, offering features and applications that ease the burdens of their everyday lives. For younger consumers who don't have as many responsibilities, these applications play second fiddle to features like cameras, games, and web browsing.

Main Trends in Cell Phone Features

  • Communication Services – Voice, Text, Pictures
  • Wireless Internet – Browsing, Email, Online Video
  • Media Services – Applications, Movies, Music

Source: Factors Affecting Consumer Choice of Mobile Phones: Two Studies From Finland

The study notes that for advertising purposes, these findings have serious implications. The researchers advise cell phone manufacturers to highlight the technical features of their phones to engage more potential consumers. However, this highlighting must go beyond simply listing features in technical jargon to actually showing these features in action and how they can improve a consumer's life.

Apple has taken this information to heart in their advertising efforts for the iPhone. Commercials for the iPhone tend to show exactly how it could affect your everyday life, without bogging the viewer down with too many of the technical aspects.

One particular commercial that showcases a phone's fast web browsing speed features a man watching a scene from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” where a giant squid envelops a pirate ship. Inspired, the man then searches for calamari in his area and is directed to a nearby restaurant by Apple's quick web browser.

By highlighting how their phone improves your life, Apple also builds up their brand characteristics and personality. Known as user-friendly, simple, and hip, Apple products tend to attract specific personalities – personalities targeted by marketing efforts.

What's your personality?

When marketing products such as cell phones, companies take great lengths to differentiate themselves from the competition. Even if cell phones seem to offer similar features and have similar technical specifications, many people develop die-hard commitments to specific brands.

Why is this? If one cell phone offers many of the same features as the other, how can consumers develop such commitments? This commitment is, in large part, due to advertising efforts from cell phone manufacturers that give their products specific personalities.

According to “Dimensions of Brand Personality,” by Jennifer L. Aaker, brands carry sets of characteristics that attract specific types of customers. Aaker writes that, much like humans, companies and brands develop their own personalities over time.

These personalities are shaped by factors inside and outside of a company – from the CEO and the employees, to product endorsers and advertising strategies. For companies like Apple, innovation and brand personality was long driven by former CEO Steve Jobs, who exemplified qualities like perfectionism, creativity, and ingenuity.

Aaker continues to describe that the greater the similarity between the characteristics that describe an individual and the characteristics that describe a brand, the greater that individual's preference for that brand. This explains why some consumers develop such strong feelings toward a particular brand of cell phone.

There are five brand personality factors consumers consider when choosing between competing brands:

  • Sincerity
    Is the product down to earth? Cheerful? Honest?
  • Excitement
    Is the product cutting edge and imaginative?
  • Competence
    Is the product reliable, successful, and seemingly intelligent?
  • Sophistication
    Is the product charming? Does it raise my social standing?
  • Ruggedness
    Is the product tough and not easily broken?

When consumers view commercials or print advertisements for cell phones, their reactions are largely guided by these personality factors. Consumers store brand-personality associations in their memories, and access these associations when making purchasing decisions.

For example, the Droid brand typically creates very action-heavy commercials with a sci-fi twist. Consider the commercial where a man on a futuristic motorcycle hijacks a truck carrying secretive cargo. After escaping from his pursuers, the man analyzes the cargo to find a new, sleek droid phone. The commercial elicits feelings of excitement and danger, as if the Droid phone was so cutting edge and powerful that it required an armed transport.

Alternatively, Apple iPhone commercials tend to emphasize sophistication, competence, and sincerity. The playful music featured in the commercials calls to mind a sense of quirkiness and wonder, while frequent celebrity cameos suggest that the phone is a favorite of higher-class individuals.

Embarrassed by your phone?

For more proof that cell phones have elevated themselves from simple tools to status symbols, one only look to Research in Motion's Blackberry.

Once the leader of phones in the business world, Blackberry has sunk to less than 5% of the smartphone market, down from nearly 50% in 2009. The article “The Blackberry as Black Sheep” published in The New York Times describes that many Blackberry users are actually embarrassed to own their phones.

In the article, author Nicole Perlroth interviews several Blackberry users who report feeling shy and ashamed when pulling out their phones in front of their Android and iPhone-using friends.

Users report needing to rely on friends and significant others to browse the web, read restaurant reviews, and get directions. One user even said, “ I feel absolutely helpless. You're constantly watching people do all these things on their phones and all I have going for me is my family's group [Blackberry Messenger] chats.”

Source: The New York Times “The Blackberry as Black Sheep”

Because the brand-personality association is such a strong construct, competitors must work harder to break those associations down if they hope to dominate the marketplace. Consider Samsung, Apple's main competitor who owns 27% of the smartphone market share to Apple's 37.3%.

Recent advertising efforts focus on comparing new Samsung products to new Apple products, poking fun at the iPhone's diehard fans. While Apple users are waiting in line for their new iPhones, Samsung users approach them to showcase how many features the Samsung phone already has. As Samsung puts it, “the next big thing is already here” to the chagrin of Apple fans who have stood in line for hours.

Samsung's commercials suggest that the level of competence and sophistication Apple users are waiting for has already arrived, and that by switching to Samsung, they don't need to wait to reach that level of sophistication.

By exploring personality factors in branding, Samsung has seen higher levels of success with its new line of smartphones. Their experience shows how exploring psychological factors of branding has huge pay-off potentials for companies selling cell phones.

Integrating Psychology and Marketing

The future success of cell phone companies rest on marketers' understandings of how we project our personalities on their products. By harnessing this information, analyzing personality factors, and developing advertisements that reflect this understanding, these companies will edge out the competition and dominate the marketplace.

If you're interested in learning more about how marketers use psychological understanding to inform their decisions, research and contact schools offering degree programs in marketing.

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