Gaming and a girl gone wild: Sony Ericsson looks to the past to define the future

According to data released by The Nielson Company in March, Sony Ericsson’s share of the U.S. smartphone market is barely a blip on the radar. Apple and RIM combine to own more than half the market, HTC is coming up behind them with 19%, Motorola holds 11%, Samsung has a 7% share and Sony Ericsson sits somewhere in the “Other” category, grouped among an undefined number of nameless manufacturers that combine to share roughly 3% of the smartphone market in the U.S. But Sony Ericsson smartphones are preparing to invade American soil, and the company’s assault just started with a boob-stab.

Read on for our full feature including an exclusive interview with the creative team behind Sony Ericsson’s Xperia PLAY ads.

Nearly every major research firm that covers the wireless industry has predicted that Android will continue to grow until it becomes a smartphone platform even more dominant than Symbian was in its heyday. And Google’s mobile OS is well on its way; major players like Samsung, HTC and Motorola have flooded the market with so many Android devices, it is becoming the go-to platform for consumers by default. Millions of users around the world seek out Android for its flexibility and its feature set, of course, but millions more buy Android phones simply because they’re there. Android is what carriers are selling, so Android is what subscribers are buying.

And so a new challenge is born: how does one manufacturer differentiate its devices from the hoards of other Android phones that tout nearly identical specifications, similar features and a similar user experience?

The first generation of devices use a UI layer to differentiate themselves from other manufacturers’ offerings. HTC has its Sense UI, Samsung has TouchWiz, Motorola has the ever-changing MOTOBLUR UI, and so on. But it’s not enough. These UI layers often add a great look and some additional functionality to Android phones, but beyond all the smoke and mirrors they’re still Android phones and they’re still quite similar.

So what’s next?

Rumors of a “PlayStation Phone” go back years, but Sony Ericsson was thinking bigger. One PlayStation Phone would only take the company so far, while an Android-based, PlayStation Certified mobile gaming platform could span numerous devices with various form factors that might appeal to different demographics.

And gamers… what a market to address. Sony has sold nearly 50 million PlayStation 3 consoles and about 103 million original PlayStations to date, and its PlayStation 2 console is the most popular video game system of all time with nearly 150 million units sold. The gaming industry is massive, and the Sony half of Sony Ericsson’s joint venture certainly knows gaming.

So for Sony Ericsson, that differentiating factor was actually born more than 16 years ago in December 1994, when Sony released the PlayStation gaming console. Gaming is in the company’s blood, and it will no longer hide from its heritage. What’s more, gamers are hungry for a smartphone option that affords a more complex and attractive gaming experience. Flicking birds at pigs is great for killing a few minutes while taking a break, but most mobile games don’t even come close to providing the immersive experience afforded by a dedicated console. Developers are beginning to create more immersive games for popular platforms like iOS, but the iPhone’s form factor and other limitations often result in a low ceiling for iOS games.

The mission is clear, and Sony Ericsson’s upcoming Xperia PLAY is the first device to feature the company’s new PlayStation gaming platform for smartphones.

But the smartphone market is anything but a field of dreams, where simply building a great device will bring millions of eager customers to a manufacturer’s doorstep. Building a product is only part of the battle. Sony Ericsson has to aggressively attack carriers around the world so its gaming phones are accessible to customers, and it must also climb to the top of every mountain and shout about its new phones as loud as it can. Or it could opt for a triple-kill.

Sony Ericsson has identified the U.S. as a key market for its new breed of smartphones, but the U.S. can be a tough nut to crack; just ask Nokia. Carriers are the only option for a successful route to market, but in many cases the real fight begins after a company works out a carrier deal. Without a solid marketing and advertising effort, even the most capable phones are doomed to collect dust on store shelves.

Enter Sony Ericsson’s creative team and McCann Worldgroup.

When it comes to advertising, you can’t game gamers. Young or old, video game fans are a discerning, finicky breed and influencing their buying decisions is a challenge creative professionals have struggled with for decades. There are several approaches that have proven successful over the years, however, and the most successful video game franchises in history have often left a trail of brilliant advertising campaigns in their wake.

Advertising is easy to dismiss, but there’s a reason more than $500 billion was spent globally on advertising in 2010. And the value of solid advertising can extend far beyond the immediate return garnered by sales of a specific product. Successful advertising campaigns can stick in the consumer’s head for weeks or even months, resulting in a mind share victory that might even impact sales for years.

“Throughout the years, everybody was speculating and waiting for what everyone was calling, up until now, ‘the PlayStation Phone,’” Sony Ericsson’s Head of Marketing Activations for the Americas, Adaliz Vicens, told BGR in an interview. With so much riding on the device, which will be the first to bring PlayStation gaming — Sony Ericsson’s new point of differentiation — to the Android platform, Sony Ericsson had to swing for the fences when introducing its coming smartphone to the masses.

The company started strong with a commercial that premiered during Super Bowl XLV, but a series of Web-only promotional spots really set the Internet abuzz last month. While the audience for these spots might not have been Super Bowl-sized, the hilarious premise and the soft spoken starlet who was able to transform herself into a swirling ball of rage at the drop of a hat — or, at the drop of the Xperia PLAY’s dedicated game controller — will remain on the minds of millions of viewers for quite some time.

The promos were the brainchild of acclaimed creative firm McCann Worldgroup, and were actualized by Creative Director Sean Bryan and his team. They star actress and comedian Kristen Schaal, who manages to pull off a unique brand of schizophrenic comedy perfectly.

“We knew we wanted to get somebody who had two sides to them because the phone has two sides to it,” Bryan said during an interview with BGR. “So we started off talking about somebody who has a very clean-cut, presentable, official side, and then when they open [the Xperia PLAY], can go to a more intense or out-there side. Some weeks later we arrived at Kristen, who was sort of the perfect find for that; and boy, did she ever bring a lot to the spots in production.”

Schaal — perhaps best known for her work on HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, her quirky segments on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and her voice work for Disney’s Toy Story 3 — is undoubtedly the star of the show. And yet she still manages to leave the viewer with a strong desire to pick up an Xperia PLAY and shoot someone in the face… once his or her bellowing laughter subsides, of course.

But it’s not just hardcore gamers Sony Ericsson is after, and the recurring phrase from Sony Ericsson’s campaign points to a broader range of consumers who might find the device appealing. “The smartphone with everything you need… and the one thing you want,” the ads state. This is an important message for Sony Ericsson to convey as it tries to avoid having its new smartphones painted into a corner.

“We really wanted to say two things with these communications and really, with everything we’ve done about the phone,” Bryan said. “On its own, without the gaming functionality, it’s a really top-notch smartphone. And then when you slide it open, it kind of turns into a whole different experience.”

Sony Ericsson sees a huge untapped market in young professionals who need a modern, capable smartphone but also have a suppressed urge to return to the gaming roots of their childhoods. “Lapsed gamers,” as Bryan calls them.

“[The Xperia PLAY] is meant to reacquaint you with that gamer side,” said Bryan. “There’s a lot of people out there whose gaming has been reduced to Doodle Jump, or less immersive gaming experiences.” And Sony Ericsson’s new smartphone is designed to give them the more immersive gaming experiences they crave — knowingly or unknowingly — while also providing high-end specs and all of the functionality one might need in an Android smartphone.

While conducting research during the development process that ultimately yielded the Xperia PLAY, Sony Ericsson found that approximately 65% of smartphone users play games on their phones, Vicens revealed. With over 300 million smartphones sold last year and an estimated 450 million smartphones expected to be sold in 2011, that’s a pretty huge target market. Add to that the hoards of “lapsed gamers” who might might not currently spend much time with cell phone games due to the lack of a truly immersive experience, and Sony Ericsson is seemingly on a path with limitless potential.

The shot heard ’round the world is said to have instigated the Battle of Concord, marking the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. It may very well be that the boob-stab heard ’round the world, delivered during what might now be referred to as Schaal’s Battle of Conchords, will help Sony Ericsson prepare for war as it takes on the giants of the smartphone industry in the U.S. and around the world.

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