Can nostalgia-based mobile phone trends trump smartphone addiction?

By Jonathan Crowl

Consumers love a throwback. Old movies get reboots, sports teams sell throwback jerseys and companies sell products using vintage marketing schemes. Technology isn’t immune to the effects of these desires. In fact, the latest mobile phone trends have seen legacy phone makers betting hard on nostalgia as a way to bring themselves back into relevance.

At this year’s Mobile World Congress, Nokia and BlackBerry made headlines for unveiling new smartphones that look a lot like the phones you might have seen a decade ago. The Nokia 3310 is a candy bar-shaped phone that has long been the most popular and recognizable phone in the company’s history. Meanwhile, the BlackBerry KEYone smartphone offers a built-in keyboard that bears a striking similarity to the BlackBerry devices of years past, along with an unusual 3:2 ratio phone screen that falls in line with BlackBerry’s historical trends.

There are some tangible benefits to the technologies offered by these devices, but as you can tell from the way these companies are marketing the devices, the primary goal is to win over consumers by reminding them of their love for old things.

Betting on brand nostalgia

In an age where iPhones and Androids dominate the smartphone landscape, it makes sense why Nokia and BlackBerry would zag instead of zig, so to speak. At this point, it would take a bold move for those phone makers to reestablish relevance and secure a larger market share. Since they’ve fallen far behind in smartphone technology and design advancements, they’re looking to other ways they can generate consumer appeal.

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As TechCrunch pointed out, nostalgia in itself is a bad reason to buy a phone, particularly if you’re signing a long-term contract. The odds of you regretting your decision are high. However, for Nokia and BlackBerry, nostalgia is a way to get their foot in the door with customers. These brands are already receiving brand visibility and coverage they haven’t enjoyed in years. That’s the first step to selling new phones to consumers. The eye appeal of nostalgia-based phone releases is all about getting someone’s attention.

There are still real benefits of these designs, and consumers will need to be convinced of their value before deciding to take the plunge with a legacy phone built for the modern day. Yet this throwback strategy remains one of the bolder mobile phone trends in recent years because it breaks away from the pack and attempts to connect with consumers in a new way.

Balancing simplicity and functionality

The obvious problem faced by nostalgia-focused cell phones is the need to offer better functionality while still tapping into the emotional relationship those consumers have. Some of these benefits are significant. Nokia’s new phone offers monthlong battery life, and the return of a physical keyboard could be preferred by consumers who have struggled to text on smartphones’ smooth screens.

Meanwhile, many of today’s cell phone owners never had a flip phone or clam-shell phone. So, even as these companies play to the nostalgia of older consumers, they can also sell to younger consumers who are seeking a throwback experience.

Then, there is the consumer segment of people who want to simplify their lives by minimizing distractions from their smartphones. Fewer apps and features means less time lost to their glowing screens. And for privacy-minded consumers, these phones have a significant selling point in terms of data collection. Because they don’t offer GPS and have no social network functionality, they are limited in the data that can be collected on the individual user.

Of course, even all these benefits can’t protect Nokia and BlackBerry from the steep uphill battles they face. Breaking consumers of their iPhone and Android addictions won’t be easy, and it remains to be seen how long the appeal of nostalgia can hold while the devices’ technology and functionality is limited.