Sleek. Cool. Sexy. They're words often applied to new clothes or new cars — not phones. But that's changing, and Motorola's Razr V3...

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CHICAGO — Sleek. Cool. Sexy.

They’re words often applied to new clothes or new cars — not phones. But that’s changing, and Motorola’s Razr V3 offers a good example.

The ultraslim, lustrous metal cellphone, introduced in November, has created a cachet of cool so strong that it should rub off on the company’s entire portfolio of phones, observers say.

A cool phone could make for a cooler Motorola in the eyes of consumers, not a bad thing for a company long known as a haven for brilliant but boring engineers. It’s an image — at least the boring part — that Motorola has worked at changing in recent years, from attempts to insinuate itself into hip-hop culture to a joint venture with über-cool Apple Computer.

Cool is a slippery concept. In its purest form, something cool is so cutting edge that few people possess it. Its exclusivity helps define it.

In commerce, exclusivity doesn’t do much for mass sales. So let’s just say a blend of style, newness and buzz bestows coolness in a corporate setting.

When cool takes off, it can change a business’s fortune. Consider Puma, the staid athletic shoemaker that became chic as it rolled out sports clothes that caught on with the dance-club crowd. Or Cadillac, an aging brand reborn after introducing more stylish cars and lacing its TV ads with rock ‘n’ roll considered cool by aging baby boomers.

Of course, Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola will hardly have a monopoly on cool phones. Style is an increasingly necessary ingredient in selling cellphones, and Motorola’s rivals know it, too.

Innovation sells

With a raft of innovative designs, Samsung Electronics has grabbed enough of the global cellphone market in recent years to challenge Motorola’s long-held No. 2 position (Nokia is No. 1).

The focus on style comes as cellphones turn into more of a commodity. Most people who want a cellphone have one. Thus, cellphone-makers have to distinguish their products and one way is through design.

“Style has become one of the critical differentiators between mobile devices,” said Hugues de la Vergne, an analyst at Gartner, a Connecticut-based market research company. “The mobile phone is the one piece of electronics that people take with them every time they go out. So they want it to be personalized.”

Thus, cellphones are becoming a fashion accessory. And phonemakers are learning a lesson from the fashion industry, said Candace Corlett, a principal at WSL Strategic Retail, a New York consultant.

“Clothes are clothes,” she said. “You have to distinguish them. You need to have cosmetic benefits. That is what fashion is all about.”

A phone’s features

Motorola’s Razr is distinguished on several fronts.

Its shell is made of aircraft-grade aluminum, not the plastic that encases most cellphones. Its keyboard is fashioned from an etched sheet of a nickel-plated copper alloy. The former gives it a particularly sleek look, while the latter helps make way for Razr’s most distinguishing feature: It’s just one-half inch thick.

“From an aesthetic perspective, thin is fresh,” said Jim Wicks, a Motorola vice president in charge of cellphone design. And cool is defined by what is fresh, he said. Short-term cool, at least. To industrial designers, there is also long-term cool.

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They call interplay between the two cools the “desire-reason blend.”

The desire stage is the initial “oh man, cool,” reaction, Wicks said. The “reason” stage, he said, pivots on a product’s functionality. The Razr has a large screen and big, user-friendly phone keys on the inside.

“It can’t just look really cool,” Wicks said. “It has to work really cool.”

Motorola’s engineers and designers saw such short-term and long-term cool potential in the Razr that the product was pushed through the development cycle in 10 months, about two months less than usual.

“We were going to be the kings of thin,” Wicks said.

Strong sales

So far, they are. Razr sales have been strong; in fact, a Motorola executive remarked in November that he wished he had more production capacity to meet demand. Meanwhile, the product has won glowing reviews from gadget lovers and cellphone aficionados.

“It’s the Porsche of the mobile-phone industry,” said Gartner’s de la Vergne.

Like that premium sports car, the Razr is beyond the reach of most consumers: It is priced at a heady $499 with a two-year contract from Cingular Wireless.

But the Razr isn’t necessarily meant for the masses. While it’s expected to be a high-profit-margin product, it’s also meant to make the Motorola brand seem cutting-edge and hip, said John Jackson, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston.

Other Motorola phones could become attractive by association — a “halo effect” in marketing lingo. Someone smitten by the Razr, but unable to afford it, might think, “What else does Motorola have?” he said.

Wicks said the Razr is part of an “icons and anchors” strategy.

The Razr is the icon. Elements of it, and not just its exterior design, will be incorporated in “anchors,” including lower-priced phones, for several years to come, he said.

With the Razr, “you are really kind of setting the tone for what your brand is all about,” Wicks said.

Leading edge

The leading edge is not new to Motorola, which sold the first commercial handheld cellular phone, weighing 28 ounces, in 1984. Its StarTAC, introduced in 1996, was the first flip phone, but Motorola started losing ground to Nokia a couple of years later.

Now Motorola is trying to recapture its cachet by positioning its brand as cool. The company’s recent advertising is suffused with pop-art edginess. Take the television commercial for the Razr. It features an alluring woman in a room that starts collapsing into squares that eventually transform into a Razr in her hand.

Then there are Motorola’s attempts to associate itself with hip youth culture, from co-sponsoring MTV’s Video Awards to its joint ventures with trendy artists or companies.

In 2002, the company brought in Russell Simmons, creator of the Phat Farm clothing line and a founder of seminal hip-hop record label Def Jam, to design a cellphone. Later, it launched a hot pink phone designed by Simmons’ wife, Kimora Lee, sold under the Baby Phat women’s clothes brand.

In December, Motorola announced a deal to produce high-tech phones that will be woven into jackets and helmets made by Burton Snowboards, a company associated with the edgy-chic world of extreme sports.

There’s more to come.

Motorola unveiled a venture with Apple Computer last summer to create a cellphone/MP3 player that will use Apple’s popular iTunes Music Store. The product is expected soon and will arrive amid huge buzz over Apple’s iPod, a staple along with the Razr on media lists of great gadget gifts during the recent holiday season.

Image makeover

The joint ventures and stylish phones like the Razr could help change Motorola’s image.

The company’s very name suggests olden days: It was christened in a time when “ola” was a popular suffix used by manufacturers of sound equipment — think Victrola. Motorola’s moniker stems from its success with the car radio in the 1930s.

Decades of pioneering research on everything from two-way radios to semiconductors gave Motorola a solid reputation for engineering.

But top-flight engineers aren’t usually associated with haute fashion.

“They’ve always been seen as technical leaders, long on substance, short on style,” Jackson said of the company.

So is the image engineering working?

“They’re still Motorola,” said Neil Strother, a wireless analyst with In-Stat/MDR. “It’s pretty hard to change the stripes of a tiger.”

That said, and particularly in the wake of the Razr, Motorola “is cooler than it was,” he said.