Samsung Instinct: How bad marketing could cripple a great product

Posted by Christian Zibreg

Opinion - Now that SonyEricsson's Xperia X1 has officially been postponed to Q4, we are certain that you soon will see predictions that Apple's 3G iPhone, if it really launches in June, could be set for a home run in the smartphone arena this year. The Xperia's delay and the lack of any information about Garmin’s nuvifone, has opened a window of opportunity for Samsung's Instinct. But the handset maker may have shot itself in the foot with an overly bold marketing strategy.

Samsung's Instinct is one of those major devices we expect to become an alternative to what is now widely perceived as an iPhone category of smartphones. Although the Instinct appears to lack some of the Xperia's mojo, it could be serious challenger for the iPhone. It is basically an iPhone lookalike with a touchscreen dominating the device. The handset comes in a slightly taller (4.57”), a bit narrower (2.17”) and thicker (0.49”) form factor than the iPhone. Its touchscreen lacks multi-touch capability and relies on one touch at a time. The Instinct's 240 x 432 pixels screen resolution is roughly half the iPhone's 480 x 320 pixels. There is no Wi-Fi connectivity, but the device comes with a decent memory capacity of 2 GB standard, which is upgradable with a separate MicroSD memory card.

Still, the Instinct has a few advantages over the iPhone. It will come with haptic feedback support, which simulates a physical keypad through vibration. Its built-in GPS hardware provides precise real-time positioning. The Instinct's 2-megapixel camera is capable of recording videos, a feature iPhone users only can access by jailbraking the handset and installing a third-party application. The Instinct is tied to the Sprint network and supports CDMA EV-DO Rev A (800MHz-1900MHz) standard to support 3.1 Mb/s downlink and a 1.8 Mb/s uplink speeds. As network speed and video recording capabilities are the Instinct's main advantages, it is not surprising that Samsung’s marketing is betting on these features - especially with the existing criticism of the sluggish AT&T network. But the handset maker may have shot itself in the foot by setting Instinct on a collision course with the 3G iPhone.

The Instinct is set for a June 20 launch, coinciding with the supposed 3G iPhone introduction. To me, that sounds like a bad idea, as the 3G iPhone is likely to render the Instinct’s advantages obsolete. Samsung may have decided to launch the phone on the same day as the iPhone to take advantage of the very likely wave of media coverage of this segment and the comparisons that will be drawn between these two devices. Any article covering the iPhone is likely to mention the Instinct as well. However, the question will be how well the Instinct will compare, or will be perceived to compare. And that could easily turn into an uncontrollable situation.

Samsung also took a page from Apple's playbook by targeting the iPhone directly in a series of ads available at Instinct's teaser site that invite users to "see Instinct defeat iPhone". The ads put the iPhone in a direct feature by feature comparison with the Instinct, showing Instinct loading a site in a fraction of time than the iPhone, precisely pinpointing geographical location courtesy of the built-in GPS hardware and downloading songs out of thin air (through the carrier's mobile network). The most prominent ads show features that the iPhone lacks, such as watching live TV, shooting and sending video recordings. Samsung even produced a made-up movie trailer showcasing the handset in a Hollywood-style thriller action piece.

Of course, there's nothing wrong in comparing your product to what is out there. These ads are funny, but we wonder whether Samsung will have the final laugh as well. By openly pitching Instinct as an "iPhone killer", I believe that Samsung has made a mistake. Also, the handset maker has made a bold decision to show the actual iPhone product side by side with its own Instinct in these ads. In a way, Samsung has provided Apple with free product placement. Of course, Apple's marketing never was shy of directly targeting and sometimes even ridiculing its competitors. Think about the latest Mac vs. PC campaign. Apple has a habit of targeting competitors in ad campaigns, but the approach fits in a bigger picture - injecting a sense of rebellion into Apple's brand.

The Samsung Instinct seems like a great handset with interesting features that the iPhone lacks at the moment. It could have been positioned as a viable alternative to the current gen iPhone, especially for users unwilling to switch to the AT&T network just to get a touch screen smartphone. But I am not sure that this marketing strategy will work against the iPhone. In less than two weeks, competing with the iPhone is likely to be a whole different ball game. To me, it sounds like a case of marketing killing a nice product.