What goes up must come down—that was the gist of Samsung’s Wednesday earnings report. The company revealed that profits for its mobile business slid a whopping 64 percent in the fourth quarter of 2014. That’s really bad news considering Samsung remains the world’s top phone manufacturer. (For now.)
But there’s a reason for everything. Samsung’s phone business is feeling pressure from Apple on three key fronts: brand identity, software simplicity, and hardware sophistication. Samsung might be the reigning King of Android, but if it wants to continue to rule the entire smartphone world, it will need to get serious about overhauling its business, and, dare I say it, borrow strategies from Apple.
Samsung needs a personality
When I see an Apple or Google commercial on TV, I instinctively know which company is making the pitch, even before a product pops on screen. Both companies send such distinct marketing signals: Apple’s commercials are overtly emotional, and are usually set to some kind of acoustic soundtrack. Google’s ad spots, either for Android or Nexus devices, show how Android gear will help edify our lives. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve teared up over that one commercial with the little girl who wants to go to space.
But Samsung’s advertising spots have never appealed to me emotionally. Sure, Samsung’s got a memorable slogan—“The Next Big Thing”—but why do I want what’s next? Why is my current gadget always not good enough?
Samsung’s commercials often feel like they’re more about showing off talent (see the Kristen Bell spot above) rather than illustrating how Samsung gadgets improve our lives. But the branding problem goes beyond TV advertising. Even Samsung keynotes—videocast to would-be phone buyers around the world—lack a specific identity (other than oftentimes being just plain bizarre). Where Apple cultivates cults of personality around its presenters, Samsung wheels out executives no one really knows.
Bottom line: Samsung’s marketing arm needs to stop whatever it’s doing, and explore a top-down overhaul designed to capture the hearts and minds of a broad, diverse user base. At its keynotes, it should employ just one very personable executive to highlight a few of the wonderful, key features of its next “big” device. And when that device finally goes on sale, its TV spots should focus on explaining the features that justify that “next big thing” tag in a human, resonant way.
Samsung needs a simple UI
Samsung’s TouchWiz Nature UX is gaudy and busy, and while there are certainly worse Android overlays out there, that’s no excuse when you’re the largest Android device manufacturer in the world. Apple’s iOS is far, far from perfect. It doesn’t really do that much. But it’s generally dead-simple, and that’s why mainstream normals love it.
Step one: Ditch the bloatware, Samsung. Apple doesn’t tack on any bloatware to its devices, even when a carrier begs them to. Step two: Cut down on the UI overlay. We know you’re obsessed with becoming a platform in and of itself, but near-stock software typically runs the best on Android devices. This approach would also speed up your ability to roll out faster updates when Google revises Android itself.
Finally, enthusiasts want pure Android, not over-customized versions of it. So appeal to a passionate base that can evangelize your products. From there, a broad base of consumers will follow.
Thankfully, there are already rumors that Samsung is on the path to UI simplicity. Let’s just hope it sticks to it.
Samsung needs better looking phones
Samsung has shown it’s capable of sophisticated industrial design with the recently launched Galaxy Alpha and the Galaxy Note 4, but it’s still seen as the company with big, plastic phones. As competition increases both stateside and overseas, design will become ever-more important. That’s right: Don’t assume “emerging markets” will accept commodity-caliber hardware. Apple is kicking ass in Asia, and brands in China are selling relatively well just because their products resemble the iPhone.
Of course, Samsung shouldn’t design iPhone rip-offs. But it does need to convince consumers that owning one of its smartphones is a status move. That’s exactly how Apple has convinced (fooled?) its iPhone users. And 74.5 billion iPhones later, we see that it’s working.
A new year, a new Samsung
This was not a good week for any company to announce that its mobile business is faltering. But it is a new year, and we’ve yet to see what Samsung has on the horizon. I’m already optimistic, as there was murmuring about metal casings on the Samsung earnings call. One representative outright said, “We are planning to increase the adoption of metal cases within our product lineup.” Good!
Samsung knows it’s in trouble, and that it’s got a rough year ahead. But if it can skew its smartphone business to be more consumer-facing, more simple, and more premium, it can reverse the tide and help keep Android on top for at least another year.