With AT&T’s announcement of the Thrive and Phoenix, LG has pulled off the superfecta: launching materially the same device on all four national US carriers, a feat so rare that I’m pretty sure you can count its occurrences on one hand (in the smartphone era, at least).
The root model — the phone on which all of these launches are based — is the Optimus One, a solid midrange Android device that’s been met with positive reviews and generally happy customers since its launch last year. For LG, it was a global launch in every sense of the word; you can find variants of the Optimus One on almost every continent. Problem is, not a single one of these American phones is called the Optimus One. In fact, say "Optimus One" to your average LG Vortex owner, and you’ll get nothing more than a blank stare in return. LG’s somehow managed to take one of the great feats in the smartphone industry — the digital equivalent of a grand slam — and squander most of the positive impact it could've had on the company’s brand perception.
Of course, the story is a little trickier than that. LG’s miss isn't just a symptom of poor brand management, it’s symptom of virtually everything that’s backwards about the American wireless industry. In Europe and most Asian countries outside Japan, the business model is device-centric: you don’t buy an Xperia Play because it’s on Vodafone, you buy it because you like Sony Ericsson and because you want an Xperia Play. Models are more likely to be purchased unbranded, and they’re more likely to be offered directly by more carriers. In the US, meanwhile, everything relies on the misbegotten notion that hardware exclusives are king.
Take Samsung’s Galaxy S, for example. Not one major American carrier launched it true to the original GT-i9000 — they’d all been retooled in one way or another. Granted, Sprint added a keyboard, but T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon made changes just for the sake of differentiation alone. Their endgame involves building loyalty around their own brand, not the manufacturers whose products they carry.
Manufacturers are in a pickle here. I’m sure that if they refuse requests for design changes, carriers will say, "that’s fine, we've got three other companies on the line who are willing to meet these specifications." No one — not even behemoths like LG — can afford to abandon the white-hot American phone market out of principle, especially when key models likely command seven-figure quantity commitments. To an extent, I think that’s why Nokia and Sony Ericsson are virtually absent from carrier lineups (and customers’ pockets) here these days: they appear to have been more resistant to the vicious cycle of customization for customization’s sake (the virtually stock Vivaz on AT&T, Astound on T-Mobile, and Xperia Play on Verizon all bear that out). Samsung and LG, meanwhile, have embraced it with open arms, and they've got the retail floor space to show for it.
So if Samsung is selling boatloads of Galaxy S variants and LG is selling boatloads of Optimus One variants, how in the world is this a defeat? At the end of the day, a company’s image is its single greatest asset, and these guys are selling that image to the highest bidder on a daily basis. They’re selling their souls. They need to start quite literally from square one every time they take a device to market, because they've built zero brand equity. There’s a reason why Verizon’s version of the iPhone isn't called the Dynamo or the Thrill or the Amazing: it’s called the iPhone because everyone knows what an iPhone is, and an iPhone is a product that people aspire to own.
It’s actually kind of sick that Samsung has the engineering and manufacturing capacity to produce five-plus versions of the exact same phone, but the one thing they did right was attach the "Galaxy S" branding to the tail end of all these models. Of course, no one calls their Captivate "Captivate, a Galaxy S phone," but it’s a start — and it appears to be a glimmer of recognition on Samsung’s part that they need to be putting more effort into cultivating loyalty. The "Samsung" logo on the back of the phone isn't enough, especially when a customer walks into a store and realizes there are six Android devices that look exactly alike. And naturally, this is all contingent on these companies refusing stupid design requests (Continuum, we’re looking straight at you) and producing consistently excellent phones across the board; the occasional mega-success like the Galaxy S and the Optimus One isn't enough to get it done when you’re counterbalancing it with mediocre models that sour buyers on your brand.
Because if you don’t get customers coming into AT&T stores and saying "I want an Optimus One," LG, you’re nameless — and I’m willing to bet that ZTE, Huawei, and half a dozen others would love to take your place for half the cost.
NPD analyst (and good friend of ours) Ross Rubin makes some of these points about Samsung's Galaxy line in a blog post on the company's site. As Ross notes, it remains to be seen how effective the common Galaxy branding really is — but if you ask me, it doesn't go nearly far enough to make a dent in long-term loyalty.