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What's Old Is New as Commodore, Kodak Brands Re-Emerge on Android Devices

Can using a venerable name help smaller companies in the hyper-competitive phone market?


The just-announced return of the Commodore brand atop an Android smartphone marks the continuation of a small but growing trend of once-popular tech names returning to life in the phone business.

If you look hard enough you can also find phones with other well-known names. An outfit called Bullitt Group licensed the Kodak name for a line of smartphones and also sells rugged phones under the Cat brand licensed from heavy equipment maker Caterpillar.

This is all made possible in a world where, under the hood, most Android phones are basically alike, with brand being the big separator.

Licensing an existing brand offers an alternative to the cutthroat business of trying to make ones own name in the hyper-competitive phone market. With the exception of Apple, everyone struggles in the phone business, from market leader Samsung to once-strong names HTC, Sony and LG.

But that doesn’t mean that licensing someone else’s brand is a pathway to success.

“While getting to the market is relatively easy, staying in the market will not be,” said Kantar Worldpanel analyst Carolina Milanesi.

Smartphone sales are dominated by the global brands. Some, like Huawei, have had success with their own luxury sub-brands, while some regional brands like India’s Micromax have also done well. Beyond that, carriers have had some success selling phones under their own names, but primarily at the low end of the market.

The experience these retro brands have could be instructive for Nokia, which has said it hopes to reenter the phone market as soon as next year by licensing its name and designs to another company that will build, sell and support the devices.

Milanesi said that even as venerable a phone brand as Nokia may have trouble in the market it once dominated.

“Going to the market again with something that will be very different and the same name does not guarantee success,” Milanesi said. “Licensing the name is a risky business in my mind, as you run the risk to damage the brand very quickly if you are not careful who you license to.”

Essentially agreeing, Nokia has said it is ready to forgo the phone opportunity if it can’t find the right partner.

Bullitt Group, for its part, says it has found a nice business in licensing Cat and other brands for the phone business, though it won’t say how much of its $100 million in sales come from phones. (It also licenses brands for use in audio gear and other electronics.)

“We believe now the technology wars are over,” said Bullitt Group co-CEO Colin Batt. “We believe it’s not about the technology. The technology is a given. It’s all about the brand.”

Finding the right brands to extend into phones is key, though. Batt said that the company has rejected most of the ideas that have come its way, usually from companies that think it might be cool to have their name on a smartphone but have little other justification. With Cat, for example, the idea of a rugged phone naturally makes sense.

“If you don’t get it in the first 20 seconds, it is probably not going to work,” he said.

Kodak, its newest effort, is still a work in progress. Batt said the name has resonance globally, but primarily among an older set that still equates the name with image quality and technology made simple. The company has started selling a model in central Europe and Scandinavia, with an expanded effort planned for later this year.

The Commodore project, from a separate company, aims to marry the brand with a little of its technological past, promising its phones will be able to run classic Amiga and Commodore 64 titles alongside the latest Android apps.

Memo to Nokia: When you bring out your phones next year, don’t forget to include the Snake game.

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