In buying Motorola Mobility, Google faces the marketing challenge of bringing the hotness back to a once-dominant brand.
Google's surprise announcement yesterday that it will buy Motorola Mobile for $12.5 billion may well be remembered as a turning point for the search engine giant, the moment it became a hardware company and went head-to-head marketing against other hardware vendors.
Let's unpack Google's largest acquisition ever, asking what marketing questions remain.
Remember the Motorola RAZR? Released in the third quarter of 2004, the RAZR sold more than 130 million units in its four-year run, making it the best-selling clamshell phone ever made. As the RAZR became a must-have fashion accessory, Motorola aggressively pushed its TV and print advertising campaigns under the edgy creative direction of late US advertising executive Geoffrey Frost and ad agency Ogilvy & Mather New York, which had taken on the Motorola account in 2000. Nearly as memorable as the RAZR was the hip "Hello Moto" campaign, which first appeared in January 2002.
But that was then. Motorola Inc., which split itself into Motorola Mobility and Motorola Solutions earlier this year, never caught that advertising lightning in a bottle again. Its cellphone market share, which hit a high of 22 percent in 2006, has been on a steady decline ever since and stands in the single digits today. Nor has Motorola Mobility distinguished its brand since the split.
Meanwhile, Motorola's much-anticipated Android Honeycomb-based tablet hasn't been a bright spot. Sales of the Xoom tablet, released with much fanfare earlier this year as the first of the "iPad killers," have been disappointing.
It'll take more than Google's financial might or search engine marketing skills to help Motorola Mobility bring forth another game-changing mobile device. Why? Because the very advantages Google touts with its standardized Android ecosystem, which includes multiple hardware OEMs, preclude it from making the brand differentiations that have brought so much success to its No. 1 mobile hardware rival, Apple.
"With mobility continuing to take center stage in the computing revolution, the combination with Motorola is an extremely important event in Google's continuing evolution that will drive a lot of improvements in our ability to deliver great user experiences," Google CEO Larry Page said during a Monday conference call with analysts. Page noted more than 150 million Android devices have been activated worldwide through a network of 39 manufacturers and 231 carriers in 123 countries.
True, Android's development and growth has been impressive. However, an often-heard complaint about Android is that its multiple hardware vendors, several of whom overlay the OS with their own additions, make for a fragmented environment, distinctly unlike the Apple landscape.
Can Google's Motorola unit -- an Android licensee like HTC, Samsung, and Sony -- revolutionize the Android platform? If it does, it's a fair bet that these now-supportive Android OEMs, nearly all of which released statements praising the Google purchase, will scream foul, arguing that Google is playing favorites with its in-house Android licensee. My gut tells me it's going to get messy.
There may be more room for Google to run in the non-phone space -- on your TV. While much of the attention is on Android phones, Motorola Mobility makes set-top boxes and DVRs, sold through cable operators, which plays into Google's Google TV strategy. Here again, Apple, with Apple TV, is in the cross-hairs, but at least there won't be a channel conflict with the other Android OEMs.
Or maybe we should forget about marketing and technology. This could come down to Google playing patent defense.
After heralding the mobile future, Page turned his attention to the deal's other benefit: access to Motorola's patents, which will "help protect Android from anti-competitive threats from Microsoft, Apple, and other companies."
Motorola Mobility executives on the call quickly picked up the theme. "We have over 17,000 issued patents worldwide. We have on top of that over 7,500 patent applications in process," said Motorola Mobility chairman and CEO Sanjay Jha.
Last October, Motorola asserted Apple had violated 18 patents; a month later, it sued Microsoft around other mobile patents.
Could it be that Google's most expensive purchase to date wasn't about finding an innovative partner for next-generation mobile products and more to do with snapping up the legal assets of a marketer whose best days are behind it?
— Ellis Booker is a freelance journalist with extensive experience with business-to-business marketing.
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