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Slew of Mobile PCs Giving Marketers Branding Headaches

From Tiny Netbooks to Smaller Smartphones, Consumer Confusion Is Leading to Dissatisfaction

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YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- Living wirelessly has contributed to a branding mess.

Notebooks, netbooks, smartphones and (coming soon) smartbooks are on a collision course as each adopts some of the others' design elements and features, becoming more homogeneous and harder to differentiate: Lighter, thinner notebooks are starting to look like larger-screen netbooks. And small netbooks running on mobile platforms are starting to feel a lot like large-screen app-driven smartphones.

What does it all mean for consumers? Confusion, as marketers fall down on the job. A study from NPD Group recently found that 60% of people who bought a netbook instead of a notebook thought it was the same as a notebook. And only 58% of the people who bought the netbook instead of a notebook considered themselves "very satisfied."

Mobile PC cheat sheet: How to tell them apart

Notebook Notebook: Generally larger and heavier than a netbook, notebooks tend to have more memory and processing power. They also include DVD players and burners for watching and creating videos and movies often in high definition.

Netbook Netbook: Most are less than half the size and weight of notebooks, with screens in the 7-inch-to-10-inch range, though screens are getting bigger. Netbooks also are generally limited in capabilities, meant for e-mail, mobile web surfing and streaming video. The original netbooks did not include DVD players, but that is also changing.

Smartphone Smartphone: The easiest identifier? You can make a phone call on a smartphone. These devices are also considerably smaller than netbooks -- the iPhone screen is 3.5 inches -- and easily fit into a shirt pocket.

They don't toast everything
"People still think of PCs as toasters and that they toast everything," said Steve Baker, analyst and author of the new report. "We really have to make sure the right person is buying the right thing. It's not just a toaster; it's a bagel toaster that only does one or a couple of things really well. ... We're seeing some segmentation, but we need to see more."'

Or, rather, the segmentation needs to be communicated to consumers better. "A lot of these things are just marketing," said Michael Gartenberg, analyst at Interpret. "As a category, netbooks are just small laptops that keep getting bigger. ... Whether you call it a netbook or a small computer doesn't really matter. What we're seeing in whether people are satisfied or not is how the device functionality works for them."

Netbook, notebook and smartphone marketing is important to get right because each is still growing sales, unlike the overall PC category. According to Gartner data, 21 million mini-notebooks are expected to ship in 2009 -- up 80% from 2008 shipments of 11.7 million -- and 30 million shipments are projected for 2010. Notebook shipments are projected at 149 million units for 2009, a 4% increase over 2008. Gartner also predicts sales of smartphones will jump 38% in 2009.

Intel plays in all three categories. It makes the chips that go into notebooks (the Core family of processors) and netbooks (the Atom), and it has announced intentions to make chips for smartphones in the future. But its marketing goal from the beginning of the Atom chips was to draw distinct lines separating the devices' capabilities.

Consumer education
"We've really made an effort around education and setting up expectations appropriately," said David Lipsey, an Intel consumer-marketing strategist. "We want to avoid people going in to a store and, for lack of a better term, getting distracted by price. ... At the end of the day, buying something that doesn't meet expectations just generates general dissatisfaction or a return to the retailer."

Intel works with retailers to do things such as separating netbooks from notebooks inside the store, and offers point-of-purchase materials that outline the difference. Intel's own Classmate PC is rebranded and sold by other marketers in the U.S. with marketing pre-outlined to specific to a 5- to 14-year-old's education targets. They also have online materials such as "Netbook vs. Notebook: Which one is right for you?" to help consumers doing pre-purchase web research. Its creative agency is Venables Bell & Partners, San Francisco.

Analysts pointed to other good examples of netbook marketing that target audience rather than list speeds and specs.

"I think the key is not to focus on the technology but the audience you're marketing to. Make the experience of that product relate to them," said David Roman, VP-worldwide marketing communications for HP's personal-systems group. "With the Vivienne Tam product, and our other fashion products, the focus of our communications is very different from, say, our youth products or business products. ... [The technology of] the products are basically the same, but it's doing what marketing should do."

For its Mini 1000 Vivienne Tam netbook, HP debuted the "digital clutch" at the designer's New York spring fashion show; partnered with publisher Conde Nast to launch lifestyle ads across its fashion titles; and ran outdoor and online work. Its creative shop is Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco.

Other strategies
Counter to the fashion-clutch strategy, but using the same Mini technology, is HP and Verizon Wireless' Verizon Wireless HP Mini, which comes as part of a Fios triple-play subscription package. "Their customers are buying them as extensions of their digital phone, and that marketing is very different, because it's more like Verizon's phone marketing," Mr. Roman said.

He added, "It's crucial for the industry to understand we're marketing solutions to audiences, and technology is just a component of that."

Rob Enderle, principal analyst, Enderle Group, agreed. "You don't see carmakers arguing about whether something should be called sporty car or stylish SUV because it doesn't matter," he said. "It's marketing 101. You focus your marketing on the target it was designed for. And hopefully it was designed with real people in mind."

Tips for tech marketers: How to differentiate your brand

Park the tech speak. Don't tell consumers how fast or big the device is; tell them what it can do for them. High-speed digital DVD burner becomes a movie-making machine for budding directors.

Tell people what a product won't do. Intel says it points out the limits as well as the advantages of its netbook, so consumers aren't disappointed when they hit one of those limits.

Use your product's unique attributes to set it apart. Is it a fashion accessory? Is it a quick-boot-up, on-the-go mini? Is it available on a wireless-subscriber plan? Yes, yes and yes for three of HP's differently marketed and designed but same basic Mini netbooks.

Offer online resources for consumers. They may not understand product differences from a 30-second TV ad or one-page magazine ad, but tack on a website address where they'll find easy-to-read and detailed information for shopping research.

Don't compete on price alone. Yes, netbooks and smartphones are generally cheaper than notebooks, but a "good deal" can feel like a bad one if the device doesn't live up to consumer expectations.
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