The case of the ‘unbreakable’ phone

A few weeks ago I delivered a guest talk on ‘Innovation’. Among other things, we looked at what turns great ideas into successful products.

Many inventors believe that products which are faster / smaller / lighter… than their predecessors, or have features that make them technically superior along some dimensions, will sell themselves and quickly dominate the market. The truth is that this is rarely the case – as Rayna and Striukova noted ‘the recent history of high-tech industries provides numerous examples where, despite their ability to come up with radical innovation and (having) first-mover advantage, companies failed’.

For a product to be commercially successful it has to be bought by someone (well, lots of people, ideally) – and customers are only going to do that if they can see what the product does for them. For instance, if you were trying to convince me to buy the Nintendo Wii based on the quality of its graphics, the range of games available, etc… I would not be the least impressed because I do not like playing games on my TV. Therefore, whatever price you quoted would always seem expensive in relation to the value I place on those specific technical features. However, if you realise that I ‘need’ an exercise aid, you can let me know, for instance, about the Wii’s interactive features which react to my improved fitness levels unlocking new exercise routines, etc… Suddenly, for me this product could become a great alternative to fitness DVDs or going to the gym and, thus, become quite a valuable offer.

As if on queue, on that same week I saw a short clip whereby Dan Simmons, BBC Click’s reporter, broke a mobile phone handset that was being marketed as ‘unbreakable’:


This is a great a video and not just because of the hilarious look on Sonim’s CEO face when he saw how easy it was for the reporter to break the screen. The clip was a stark example of how company representatives can get caught up on technical features rather than benefits for consumer. For instance, Sommit’s CEO talks about being able to hammer a nail with the handset, whereas the video shows a phone in an aquarium. Seriously, who is going to look at a mobile phone and think ‘I must have this handset because I can use it to finally hang that picture in my living room’?! And how likely is it that you will want to pick up a phone call underwater? So, you will not be surprised to read that my first reaction to this handset was ‘why would anyone want one?’ (However, I then recalled one instance when my phone fell in the water while I was bathing my youngest child, and I only realised it when I pulled the plug. Predictably, the phone did not work for a few days. Soon, I was wishing that I had a waterproof mobile phone!)


It seems to me that the problem with the product as displayed on that video is not that the features are valueless, but rather that the company’s speaker did not emphasise how those features could deliver value to the users, in situations that they are likely to encounter.  And you?

4 thoughts on “The case of the ‘unbreakable’ phone

  1. Oh, that video is hilarious! Brilliant.
    But, the point you’re making is true. I think having a successful product, is making one that solves people’s issues. There was a post on HBR recently that talked about exactly that. People don’t want the best phone to hammer nails in the wall, they want to be connected to others (and to all sorts of data and information these days) and record memories.
    And some, especially in certain industries, want a phone that can fall 10-stories, or survives being driven over by a truck. But that’s a niche-market. And in that market, phones can repeatedly fall on sharp metal corners…


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