Nokia Seeks some Sound Advice

Posted on Thursday 15 September 2011

As it gets closer to the launch of its new Windows OS phone line, Nokia is using crowdsourcing to create a revised version of its well-known ringtone. It’s part of a massive rebranding effort as Nokia takes the next step to reinvent itself in a world now dominated by Apple and Android.

Recognize this? It’s the signature tune heard every time a Nokia phone boots up. It’s also the default ring tone in many of their devices. And even while Nokia looks to reinvent itself in so many other ways, the still massive Finnish mobile telecom company is looking to this now almost 18 year old part of its past as a trademark for the future. Read on for how this fits into a make-or-break rebranding strategy for this possibly still formidable competitor.

Nokia’s once dominant role in this industry is legendary. By moving quickly to digital technology when the previous market leader Motorola was stuck in an analog world, Nokia took the lead market position seemingly overnight. With strong hardware and software technology coupled with a powerful international market reach, it held the lead position for the better part of two decades.

Not a bad run for any company.* But just as Motorola stumbled in the face of the Finnish giant’s digital juggernaut in the 90s, so also Nokia missed the equally rapid move to smartphone technology here early in the 21st century, first led by RIM, then Apple, and now via partners running Google’s Android OS.

Earlier this year, Nokia’s new CEO Stephen Elop moved to deal with the company’s rapidly declining smartphone market share decline in a big way. By partnering with Microsoft to make the Windows Phone 7 OS the new replacement for its once-heralded Symbian and even its newer MeeGo approaches, it tied its future in a big way to Elop’s former employers in Redmond, Washington.

The challenge in making such a sweeping strategic shift is that it is easy to lose your corporate identity in this industry where the OS characteristics overshadow any other form of brand identity. Handset manufacturer HTC has made its own attempts to differentiate, with its impressive “HTC Sense” UI overlay that runs atop the Android OS and a strong attempt at corporate branding overall. Samsung, with yet another UI overlay and one of the best displays in the business, has also worked to differentiate itself.

In each case, however, Samsung and HTC have phones that look and act quite similarly to each other, all because of the Android OS running their best-selling handsets. Interestingly enough both companies also are and will be offering new Windows Phone 7 OS devices as well, but even then the dominance of the OS makes it hard to tell them apart.

So how in this world of intense competition will Nokia differentiate itself with its Windows OS phone? Based on what has already been leaked, I expect industrial design of the handset itself to be different, though how much it can be remains to be seen. Nokia has given far stronger hints that it will be making some significant alterations to the base Windows OS as well, likely resulting both in key changes to the look and feel of the UI.

And beyond that is something we’ve only just learned about, the recreation of the signature Nokia tune itself.

The company announced this with a worldwide contest launched September 5th, with entries due 4 weeks after that.** The starting point is the original Nokia tune, itself an excerpt from a 1902 solo guitar piece originally written by Francisco Tarrega; you can hear it yourself in measures 13 to 16 of that original piece. It became part of Nokia’s handset branding all the way back in 1993.

That little riff, by the way, is heard a lot more often than any other guitar piece ever composed. According to one calculation it is played over 1.8 billion times every day around the planet, or some 20,000 times per second.

It may not seem like a big deal, but that’s an incredibly powerful brand identity. People still need to see an iPhone or an Android before they know you have one. With Nokia’s products, your ears know the story even if the phone is in someone’s pocket. Nokia may be making a lot of changes to transform its future but it isn’t giving up on what may be its most recognized brand asset around the world.

So what exactly are they doing in reaching out to us with this new contest? It’s about recreating that iconic tune for modern times. Something distinctive and yet easily recognized everywhere.

Early entries vary from the symphonic “Nokiorchestra” to a 60s smoky nightclub version “Nokia Jazz Theme” to a strange but popular one called “The Great Marvelous”. If you want to hear some of these, check out this website excerpt of entries already posted.

Which will end up being the new sound of Nokia? To you and I it probably doesn’t really matter. But to Nokia the hope is not only that the reworked tune is something catchy but also that their new phones will catch on even more.

May the best song win. And perhaps also a previously almost pronounced dead competitor will rise again from the ashes.

* The 20 year run from boom to bust is an all-too-common one in modern companies. Check out our post and podcast on “The 20 Year Syndrome” by clicking here. As you listen, don’t forget this was written over 5 years ago, before one of the companies we talked about there, Google, saw its Android OS take off, before Microsoft restructured itself yet again, and before AOL went through even further implosion. Funny thing, though: time has proven the arguments put forth in that podcast even more accurate now more than half a decade later.

** Full contest information is available here.

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