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What challenges does the ZTE Axon Phone face?
The Axon Phone hasn’t been officially launched yet, but has already managed to develop significant interest, particularly after we and others realized it was a device manufactured by ZTE. Beginning last month with unofficial confirmed origins, speculation immediately began. Not soon after, we learned that the rumors linking the phone to Chinese manufacturer ZTE were in fact true. It is largely believed that ZTE has deliberately chosen – at face value – to distance itself from the product in an attempt to get American consumers to consider the Axon without any pre-existing bias. This is seemingly of great importance given their marketing suggests the phone will be a high end device, and therefore put it squarely against veteran established players.
What we know
Surprisingly little, actually, even with a recent update to the official website. We know the Axon Phone will include 4GB of RAM. It will have dual rear-facing cameras (of an unspecified resolution) that can shoot 4K HD videos, “incredibly fast auto-focus”, and post-processing to allow for bokeh. The front camera will allow you to take selfies simply by smiling. ZTE is claiming it will be “the first true high-fidelity phone available in the US” with “amazing high-fidelity sound playback” and includes a dual-microphone design for high fidelity sound recording.
Finally, it will contain a “lightning-fast processor, 4GB memory and a large battery for all-around high performance under the hood” while running on a “super-simplified Android interface” (gallery below) and be housed in a metallic body of which there will be three different color variants available: blue, gold, and silver.
What we don’t
Given the pending July 14th press event that Axon is lining up, unknown details about specifics will soon be of a known consistency. With that said however, some rather essential patches of details have been left out, namely which SoC will be on-board, what type of display panel and what size/resolution, exactly how large the battery is, what resolution the cameras will be, will microSD be supported, how much on-board storage will be available, what build of Android will be used, and of course, how much the smartphone will actually cost, not to mention how customers will be able to buy it (Directly? Carriers? Unlocked?).
For the collective public at-large, this product is no more relevant than any number of Kickstarter vaporware projects
Without a doubt, these questions are absolutely critical to the future of not only the phone, but of the very product line that ZTE /Axon is seeking to establish in bringing the Axon Phone to market in the manner it has chosen to.
The Axon Phone’s various variables for success
While it would be easy to simply state “top specs” are all it takes to be successful, in this day and age that’s no longer the case. Let’s take a quick look at some of the more major points:
Cost has become a major factor as smartphones have essentially become a commodity, and it will be instrumental in determining the success of this product, especially as an unknown quantity. Whereas at least ZTE is an established brand, the absence of any “brand” whatsoever means that mainstream consumers will be taking this product at face value. That is both good and bad, however should be cost prohibitive then the Axon may fall victim to legacy OEMs such as Samsung, HTC, LG, or Motorola. If the phone is sold unlocked, it will intrinsically have a higher price tag. If the phone is sold directly, it will be bereft of any carrier-sponsored in-store marketing and pricing structures. If the phone is carrier exclusive then it will inherently reach a limited audience, not unlike Amazon’s Fire Phone.
Depending on just how high-end this device will be, competition will be fierce. If it’s going to compete with flagships sold by Samsung, HTC, or LG, the Axon will definitely need to be significantly cheaper, especially on an off-contract price. If the Axon contains the controversial Snapdragon 810 it may be criticized, yet paradoxically, if it goes for the 808 it might be viewed as not having the “best” Qualcomm SoC. If it uses another brand entirely (MediaTek for example) some might deem it inferior on the whole. Cellular bands will also play a major role in the product’s future, as potential customers won’t be able to use a product that won’t work on their network.
With the Samsung Galaxy S6 and its lack of a removable battery and support for microSD, some more vocal criticism has surfaced about the lack thereof, and by the looks of it the Axon Phone won’t support either feature. A deal breaker? Hardly, but there are some looking for a premium product and expect at least microSD, something that will become a larger factor if the device lacks expandable memory and only has 16GB of on-board storage. Likewise, if there is a 64 or 128GB model, the price then becomes a larger factor. This issue becomes an even larger one given the claims ZTE has already made about the Hi-Fi audio experience and recording: sound of that quality simply isn’t had at a deference to file size.
As was touched upon in the pricing section, how ZTE plans to promote this device will be crucial for its success by way of public exposure. While the Axon Phone made some waves last week, it was seemingly due to the then-unconfirmed connection between it and ZTE given the lack of knowledge about the specs and functions. Since then, we’ve basically heard nothing, unlike potential rival (in theory perhaps, not so much as in practice) the OnePlus 2, whose manufacturer has been on a teaser tirade as of late. If ZTE wants this phone to be truly successful, and one might imagine it does given the removal of its brand name and calculated decision to launch this in the USA, it needs to get as many people talking about it as possible. This just won’t happen if the phone is relegated to online-only sales, and therefore carrier commitment to carry is critical.
Poor Premonition: ZTE’s Sordid Strategy
By all accounts, the Axon Phone is going to be a major powerhouse. That, in-and-of itself should be cause to rejoice were this 2013. Unfortunately, in 2015 the smartphone market has become inundated with flagship devices to the point where they aren’t even meeting sales expectations despite promising build-up and initial performance. These devices have become so powerful that, save for the most spec-crazed consumer, there really is no need to run out and buy the latest and greatest just because. If anything, consumers are starting to pick up “spare/knock-around” phones like the Moto G in the off chance something happens. Likewise, with so many budget-friendly products now available with specs that aren’t half-bad, the need for a halo smartphone isn’t warranted either.
Herein lies the major fault in ZTE’s strategy: Instead of relying on its established company name and pedigree of products, ZTE chose to deliberately hide the very identity that it paradoxically wants the Axon to have: a relevant one. Let’s take a look at the marketing efforts thus-far:
1. Axon makes a post on Instagram and push on Snapfluence. This would have worked wonders had it been published on an official, established account (like ZTE’s) wherein it could have drawn upon its entire collective of followers and potentially attracted many more. In addition, it would have attracted even more people to ZTE itself, and its products – both current and future – which would have done quite a lot of good for the company’s brand recognition in a country that knows very little about it.
2. Axon has a bizarre contest going that is, essentially, asking users to leave pictures of anything. The winner receives $10,000. This contest is of an utterly random nature that has little connection with the product itself. Will the winning idea be used in the Axon? Will it be featured in a future one? Does it have to be a politically correct one? This kind of irresponsible marketing is along the same lines as that which got OnePlus in trouble last year with its misogynistic campaign.
3. We know nothing about the phone. As the preceding elements of this piece should make clear-as-crystal, we don’t have any solid details on any of the phone’s specs. This would be passable if ZTE itself were selling the phone, as the company’s own brand might hold enough weight to garner a continued interest in following the product to market. Instead, for the collective public at-large, this product is no more relevant than any number of Kickstarter vaporware projects that have been long since discredited and removed from existence. At the very least LG and OnePlus have worked with solid details in their pre-launch doings.
Instead of relying on its brand name, ZTE chose to deliberately hide the very identity it paradoxically wants the Axon to have: a relevant one.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume the Axon Phone has specs that are equal to those of the Galaxy S6 or LG G4. It would be, by default, an absolute titan of a flagship product. Let’s assume it will be cheaper than either device. Imagine the sales potential of such a product (OnePlus sure did last year) were it to be significantly more affordable than the competition. By releasing core specs, ZTE could have forced customers to defer purchasing a new device until its product launch. As things stand now, it’s fair to say mainstream consumers looking for halo products have probably already bought one, or else are waiting for the next big thing.
ZTE has miscalculated the potential of the Axon Phone, and these three poorly executed marketing strategies are inevitably going to come at quite a cost as, quite frankly, no one cares about this product. Literally.
As the above Google Trends data reflects, the Axon Phone isn’t even a blip on the radar when compared with other smaller brands, including ZTE itself which has appeared in news headlines 48 times more than Axon’s sole offering. It’s often said that no news is good news, but when it comes to launching a brand new product line and selling it to the public, you want to be in prime location screaming from a megaphone.
As if these three points aren’t damaging enough, ZTE must also deal with the fact that, as an “original” brand, neither investors nor consumers actually know what’s going on here. Will the Axon Phone be the start of an all-new brand for America? Will it be supported past the launch window? Does it indicate that ZTE has major ambitions in the American smartphone market? Will ZTE attempt similar doings in other territories as well? This piece has raised so many questions, and it is that very uncertainty and lack of information that turns people off and ushers them onto the next thing.
The Axon Phone is an exciting device to be sure. It has a definitive look, it has potentially powerful hardware inside, it is “free” from any pre-existing bias about maker ZTE, and it’s launching at a time when established players have already released their flagships for the first half of the year. At the same time, ZTE has arguably made a major mistake in seeking to hide its brand name from the new product it seeks to sell: there is nothing to fall back on and consumers know nothing about it. We don’t even know what kind of consumer it will actually appeal to.
Be sure to check back on the 14th after the official launch, but in the meanwhile, feel free to take the survey below or leave us your thoughts on this curious new entry into the smartphone war. Ultimately only time will tell just how successful the Axon Phone is, but patience is in short supply.