The next era of mobile: Marketing revolution or tech fetishism?

As smartphone sales growth declines for the first time, mobile brands are looking to innovate and push boundaries like never before. But are consumers ready?

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone more than 140 years ago, he probably didn’t envision a world where he would be able to send self-destructing photos of himself with a flower garland in his hair. Or, indeed, a time when phones could measure blood pressure, scan fingerprints or alter the way we see realities entirely.

Yet thanks to the development of smartphones these things are all possible.

With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), the internet of things (IoT) and smart cities – all powered by the glittering promise of 5G – the opportunities for mobile manufacturers, operators and brands are greater than ever.

However, as smartphone sales growth declines for the first time, brands are having to push boundaries and innovate at a far faster rate to keep consumers interested. Never has that innovation been more evident than at this year’s Mobile World Congress.

The need for rapid product development to make up for the lack in smartphone growth means there is a fine line between meaningful innovation that will enhance consumers’ lives and innovation for the sake of it.

A new frontier

While many of us often have to wave our phones above our heads to get a decent 4G connection, 5G is promising to unlock a number of new opportunities.

The UK’s 5G auction started on 20 March, with O2, Three, EE and Vodafone, as well as B2B operator Airspan Spectrum Holdings, all competing for a share of the airwaves in order to create a sustainable 5G infrastructure.

Manufacturers including Samsung and Huawei, meanwhile, are developing technologies that only a super-fast network will be able to support. They are already laying the foundations for a 5G-powered world beyond connected fridges, smart watches and voice assistants.

Samsung calls this the ‘Intelligence of Things’, and through increasingly powerful and clever machines, the manufacturer wants to turn “impossible ideas into essential capabilities” that put mobile at the heart of everything people do. It has even given birth to an AR emoji.

Samsung says it is only at the tip of the iceberg of what it wants to achieve, and yet the current mobile ecosystem is proving to be challenging enough – even without the prospect of 5G, AI, AR, and machine-learning thrown into the mix.

Luckily for any panic-stricken marketers, futurist and head of strategy at Wired Consulting, Tracey Follows, says emerging technologies make good headlines but technology rarely alters society overnight.

“They will be adopted when society can and wants to absorb them. They need to become part of our routines, part of the existing infrastructure, part of our trusted experience – and that always takes longer than we think,” she explains.

“Technology moves at a faster pace than society and society moves at a faster pace than regulation and infrastructure.”

Follows says that most of these technologies will have a long-term future but today’s product launches are, for now, merely short-term fads.

It’s not so much turning your back on technology, but more about controlling this compulsive and dopamine-driven behaviour.

Jan Huckfeldt, Motorola

And while 5G promises to give consumers a higher-quality experience on-the-go, the Internet Advertising Bureau UK’s CMO James Chandler doesn’t see it “unlocking anything massive for brands”.

He argues that marketers should not get ahead of themselves as there are still far too many places in the UK that can’t get a reliable 3G connection or consistent Wi-Fi.

“Things like on-train and public Wi-Fi, in my experience, have a long way to go from a quality user experience point of view,” he says. “The mind boggles that we could be getting excited about 5G while at the same time we’re still being asked to fill out a web form to access old dial-up-speed Wi-Fi in lots of hotel chains.”

On top of that, budgets are tight, meaning marketers will have to be more cautious and scrupulous when deciding where to spend their money.

“It has never been easier not to do this stuff,” he says. “And as the rein on marketing budgets pulls tighter and the desire to measure absolutely everything grows, test-and-learn [experiments] with things like AI and VR will come under increased scrutiny.

“But the brave marketers will be curious about these new trends and how they steal market share for their business or sell more cans of deodorant or get people to think differently about their brand.”

Back to the future

Tom Goodwin, head of innovation at Zenith, says although marketers are right to be excited by all this new, shiny tech, they need to get to grips with the existing reality before they start investing in unexplored markets.

“We need to rethink everything around the possibilities we have today first. Drones, robots or the IoT realistically for most marketers don’t mean that much. 5G will turbo drive what we do, but won’t rewrite the rules so much as empower us to do the same things much better.”

According to Goodwin, VR and AR aren’t consumer propositions yet, while AI and the IoT are more philosophies than technologies. He says that although they broadly create a new canvas to do many new things, they shouldn’t be treated as specific technical specs to work around.

So perhaps Nokia is on to something with its stripped back approach. Last year it brought back its retro 3310 feature phone from the early 2000s. This year it has relaunched its 8110 model, also known as the ‘banana phone’, which featured in the film The Matrix.

READ MORE: Nokia lays out smartphone ambitions with new devices and another retro reboot

At a time when vinyl, dungarees and Polaroid cameras are all back in fashion, a hark back to the simpler days of flip-phones, 8-bit ringtones and the cult game Snake might be one way to simultaneously simplify mobile for marketers while tapping into a growing consumer demand for nostalgia.

And while other manufacturers look to achieve growth in developed countries where 5G is likely to roll-out first, Nokia’s strategy is to enter emerging markets where smartphone penetration is a long way off from plateauing, with plans to launch an entry-level smartphone this year.

Nokia believes it can catch up with market leaders Samsung and Apple within a decade, and even if some analysts believe it to be a risky strategy, going back to its feature phone roots certainly shows that Nokia is thinking differently in the global technology race.

Beyond technology

For Motorola, practicality is far more important than jumping on the latest tech trend. With the launch of its ‘unbreakable’ phone it was making a point that it does not stand for “frivolous, greedy and irrelevant” innovation that only inflates the price of handsets and doesn’t add anything to consumers’ lives.

Instead, it is on a mission to get people to “radically reassess” the relationship they have with their smartphone and be more mindful about how they use it.

Between emails, texts, social media and an endless stream of other apps, people look at their phones on average every five to seven minutes. It is obsessive and compulsive, simultaneously damaging our thumbs and our mental health.

“We noticed about a year ago that phone usage is moving into a rather mindless territory,” says Motorola’s CMO Jan Huckfeldt.

“There is a lot of anxiety coming from smartphones because of the fear of missing out and as a consequence there are sleep problems. If you have your phone beside your bed, which most people do, your subconscious keeps working. It reduces productivity and creativity.

“It’s not so much turning your back on technology, but more about controlling this compulsive and dopamine-driven behaviour.”

According to Motorola’s research, six in 10 people would like a better phone-life balance, while 49% check their phone more often than they would like and 34% believe they would be happier if they spent less time on their phone. More concerning is the fact that 53% of children aged 11 to 16 describe their phone as a ‘best friend’.

Motorola is working with a number of third-party organisations to help people strike a healthier balance. This includes Space, an app that monitors how much time users spend within apps and how often they unlock their phones, as well as blocking notifications and dimming screens.

It is also investing in voice-assistant AI to help accelerate its ‘phone-life balance’ strategy.

We need to rethink everything around the possibilities we have today first.

Tom Goodwin, Zenith

“We are very motivated by this because a third of the population [say] they are happier if they can use less of their phone, as they [then] get this balance right,” explains Huckfeldt.

“It is something that is really meaningful and relevant and we are the only ones who are really going after that – we are innovating for [the consumer].”

Meanwhile, Follows suggests there will be an increased focus on business ethics as society pays more attention to the motives behind what brands do, and not just what they say.

“Data privacy, access to health information, citizen surveillance, automation, gendered technology, you name it, we are now questioning the motives and behaviours of every business,” says Follows.

“My suggestion is that for every engineer, we also hire an ethicist to work alongside them. A bit like a creative team, they should become a design team that not only designs for users, but designs for society and its moral standards too.”

Finding the right balance

As an industry, marketing is slavish to new trends. Brands need to evolve their products and services in order to grow and stay ahead of their competitors, but it needs to be done in a way that enhances people’s lives and not just because they can.

Direct Line, for example, is looking at how AI and the IoT can help prevent accidents before they occur. It has also invested in drones that can be ordered via a bespoke app to light dimly-lit areas, which have now been adapted and rolled out for real-life search and rescue at sea.

“For us, the focus is on harnessing emerging technology to find innovative ways to improve everyday lives,” says marketing director Mark Evans. “This shows how we can take our core Direct Line brand promise of ‘fixing’ into wider application.”

Meanwhile, Just Eat is trialling robot deliveries and experimenting with how VR can bring restaurants to life for consumers on their smartphone so they can see what is on offer before placing an order.

This is where innovation can transform the world we live in. As technology continues to make the impossible possible, brands need to use their common sense to decide where they should sit in the equation.