Motorola is aggressively trying to court phone buyers with old ideas and new tricks.
By Motorola's own admission, it wasn't in a great spot just a year ago. Its third-generation Moto X line hadn't sold quite as well as previous years despite enormous technical improvements, and the integration into newish owner Lenovo had been hitting some bumps.
Chief among them was how to integrate Motorola's brand equity and enormous technical mastery into Lenovo's sprawling worldwide distribution network. Would Motorola be subsumed into Lenovo, leaving just remnants of the world-renowned phone maker, or would Lenovo let Motorola stand on its own, as previous owner Google managed to do.
When the company unveiled its Moto Z lineup last June, consisting of the ultra-thin Moto Z and ultra-strong Moto Z Force, more emphasis was placed on the accompanying modular attachments — Moto Mods, as they're called — than the phones themselves. Sure, the Moto Z was the first phone in the U.S. to remove the headphone jack, reportedly necessitated by its ultra-slim design, but design aside, the story was more about the platform than the hardware.
The unveiling itself was also new for Motorola, as it was part of Lenovo's annual Tech World showcase; previous hardware unveilings had been separate, even well after the Chinese company's acquisition of Motorola from Google in 2014. It seemed likely that, while the Moto brand was to live on in the phones themselves, Motorola as a phone company would slowly disappear, subsumed into its parent company's market dominance.
But that isn't happening. According to Jan Huckfeldt, Motorola's chief marketing officer, Motorola is not only poised for a comeback, but the entire Lenovo smartphone strategy is rallying around the brand, which, he says, is one of the most recognizable in the world.
The Motorola name isn't going anywhere. In fact, soon it's all you'll see.
"A year ago, we weren't in a good spot," he tells Android Central during a press briefing in New York in late May. "We didn't really handle the challenges [of being integrated into a larger company] well." Despite the success of phones like the Moto G series in countries like Brazil, where Motorola holds over 20% market share, the company lacked a unifying message for all of its smartphones. Was it a Lenovo Moto G? A Motorola Moto Z? Or just a Moto X, no company necessary? In India, for example, Lenovo and Motorola not only sold side by side, but in some areas competed; the Moto E3 Power went up against Lenovo's Vibe K6, while the more expensive Moto G series stood next to the Lenovo Z2 Plus.
Technology companies are generally comfortable disrupting and cannibalizing their own product lines as long as the sales stay within the company, but Huckfeldt acknowledges that a lack of a unifying message was confusing consumers in a market that was already overwhelmed by choice.
"On average, people consider two brands when shopping for something like a phone. They go in and they have something in mind already." Motorola, he says, is distinctive and has a heritage that people like. They know the brand, but more than that they have good memories of it — a simpler time, before smartphones and social media and information overload.
So Motorola is going all in on… Motorola. On phones, it's phasing out the Lenovo name in all countries but India, where the Chinese vendor has significant marketing sway, and it's no longer going to hide the brand that brought you the RAZR. Don't worry, Lenovo's tablets and laptops aren't going anywhere.
"Where they zig, we're going to zag."
Huckfeldt also points out that Motorola is not resting on nostalgia alone; while the current advertising campaigns harken back to the good ol' days of "Hello Moto," the assets themselves have been refreshed and made more colorful and aggressive. He notes the industry's tendency to follow Apple into minimalism; Motorola is pushing back against that, choosing to align itself with what Huckfeldt calls "techcentrics," the early adopters that lead a brand out of obscurity. Because as much as Motorola has maintained its identifiability, its smartphone share has dwindled in North America as Samsung and LG have become the de facto Android brands.
"Where they zig, we're going to zag," he says. "When less is more, we want 'more is more.'" Huckfeldt believes that, along with better phones themselves, two elements are going to capture people's attention: the well-regarded "batwing logo," which like the Motorola name itself has been repurposed with a more flexible, modern aesthetic; and the aforementioned "Hello Moto" pneumonic device, which is not only present in every television commercial but (annoyingly) front and center each time a Moto phone boots up.
Relying on its well-worn brand assets while unifying its product line appears to be working. Motorola has sold more Moto G5s in Latin America than all the previous Moto G versions combined, and had the best first-day sales in India to date.
Some of the marketing efforts haven't been particularly well received — a most recent ad called The Designers imagines two German designers throwing darts at an iPhone-like phone cutout to decide what to change next — but the message is clear: your phone is probably boring, and Motorola has something exciting.
That something exciting, the Moto Z line, is, a year later, still fairly fresh, though it remains to be seen how the company supports the Mods program in 2017 and beyond. Curiously, Motorola likely knew it was painting itself into a design corner when it committed to support the Moto Mods platform on the current Moto Z line for at least two years, which means we already know the size of the next flagship, for better or worse. And while Motorola has found some success with the Moto Z, boasting sales of two million units between the Z, Z Force and enthusiast favorite, Z Play, those numbers are still quite small even compared to its own far more conservative Moto G lineup.
If rumors and recent announcements are to be believed, Motorola will take steps to further unify the look of its Moto line this year, so a €99 Moto C should be visually indistinguishable from a $699 Moto Z. "We want everyone to immediately recognize a Motorola phone," says Huckfeldt. He also wants everyone to recognize a Motorola commercial, a Motorola logo and a Motorola soundbite. The idea in 2017, he says, is to overwhelm people with Motorola — to remind phone buyers and technology fans alike that the company is present, innovative, and relentlessly different. That alone isn't going to sell phones, but it's true that the Motorola name is considerably more ubiquitous than it has been since it was acquired by Lenovo, and despite significant executive overhaul there are enough people at the top with experience and wherewithal enough to understand what needs to change and what doesn't.
Even a year in, it's not clear how history will treat Motorola's decision to bet the farm on snap-on modules, but what is clear is that the company is already hedging. While nothing has been shared publicly just yet, a leaked slide from what appears to be in internal presentation shows what appears to be the impending launch of a new Moto X, which would sit above the mid-range G line while eschewing the modularity of the Zs. Along with a newly-launched Moto C and rumors of a refreshed Moto E, Motorola could have, by year's end, a suite of similar-looking, uniformly-branded phones, catering each one for a particular market.
"We wanted to make better use of what we had," says Huckfeldt, referring to the Motorola name and logo as world-class assets.
"This is a premium brand. People respect it."