How Motorola can win over customers by letting them create the ugliest phones ever

Jason Gilbert
Yahoo! News
Motorola Moto X smartphones, using Google's Android software, are shown, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013 at a press preview in New York. The back of the phone is available in 18 colors. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

In 2004, a high school friend named Benjamin showed up to homeroom wearing a pair of Nike shoes with the words “DJ Wangsta” embossed on them. The shoes were a horrendous baby blue and sunshine yellow, and Benjamin -- who was not a disc jockey, nor had he ever been called “Wangsta” or “DJ Wangsta,” that I knew of-- had ordered the garish shoes online, custom-made to his specifications and tastes.

He wanted his shoes to stand out, to be so can-you-believe-this-jackass stupid that everyone around him would have no choice but to acknowledge them, and him. From my memory, it worked: He strutted down the halls of our high school, with all eyes on his appalling kicks. From that day forward, everyone knew about Benjamin and his hideous DJ Wangsta shoes. It became his thing; he went from being “that tall kid with the twin” to “that kid with the dumb shoes.” He became an overnight celebrity, just by opting for footwear that he got to choose the looks of.

Nine years later Motorola is letting phone buyers do with their smartphones what Benjamin had done with his Nikes. With the Moto X, announced Thursday at a press event in New York City, shoppers will be able to log onto a website and customize their smartphones, with different color combinations and embossed messages on the back of the phone. On the Moto Maker website, you will be able to mock up your phone with one of 18 different colors (including hot pink, cherry red, and -- yes -- sunshine yellow); a choice of shades for the accent (which will tinge the volume and power buttons, and the metal rim surrounding the camera lens); and whatever words you choose on the back of the phone (a Motorola exec suggested printing your email address in case you lose the phone, though one imagines you could also opt for “DJ Wangsta”).

Perhaps my opinion is skewed by memories of Benjamin’s sudden post-Nike boom in popularity, but this, to me, seems like a most appealing differentiator for a smartphone. Don’t tell shoppers what you are doing to be different; let them differentiate it themselves.

In a market where you are essentially trying to separate your product from the iPhone, or stand out from it, what else can you do? Samsung has found monster success with gee-whiz software tricks and an aggressive, on-the-offensive ad campaign; HTC has found critical, if not modest consumer, success with its wondrous hardware architecture; and the Nexus 4 has its own hardcore fans with its unadorned, quick-updating Android software. Nokia, LG, Motorola and Sony are still searching for effective, profitable answers.

If Motorola can effectively get the word out-- and, like other iPhone competitors, this phone will live or die on the effectiveness of the advertising push -- it should at least have a modest hit. Adventurous iPhone owners have long sought to establish their personalities by buying various wild cases to costume their phones, but Motorola takes this to the next level with its Moto X: It is an opportunity to declare your individuality on the phone itself, by inventing your own highly-visible color scheme and catchphrase. If the iPhone really has become boring, as many pundits insist, then a Motorola phone that you can festoon with the hues of your nation’s flag, or the colors your favorite college football team, may really appeal to some jaded shoppers. Perhaps Google could throw in a free ringtone of your choosing to really personalize this thing.

If some of the Moto X’s on display at Thursday’s event are evidence, these user-made cases are going to be nothing if not eye-catching (either pleasingly or, uh, DJ Wangsta-ly). The next step, clearly, will be to allow customers to choose any colors or photographs to print on the backs of their phones, and not just the 18 pre-approved ones that Motorola’s Maker tool allows you to select from. Perhaps that will be an option on the Moto X2 (Moto XI?) in 2014.

For now, though, Motorola is making the most easily customizable, micro-targeted phone on the planet, the only smartphone I know of that is makes it this simple to express yourself at the checkout counter. Whether it works is, again, contingent on the advertising -- let’s hope Motorola takes advantage of Google’s marketing team, and not whoever it was using -- and whether the DJ Wangsta’s of the world are as enthusiastic about decorating their smartphones as they are their shoes.