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Old Delhi, India shot on a Nokia N95

LONDON, United Kingdom – Nokia has a canny knack of getting under the skin of what users want, and delivering it for them. Mary McDowell, executive vice president of mobile phones at Nokia, believes this is because understanding the consumer shouldn’t just be the responsibility of the marketing department. How much does she believe this? Well, she’s just got off the plane from India, where she’d brought 100 of her top managers, about 65 per cent of whom work in R&D.

“The more real consumers you meet, understanding their lifestyles understanding their pain points, the better equipped you are to solve those pain points” says McDowell. She doesn’t believe in asking consumers what they want, either. For McDowell, success is driven by understanding and interpreting what the needs are, and then coming up with solutions.

Take the recent trip to India, where the network environment is what McDowell describes as “challenging”. Having someone from R&D, who understands network and antenna technology, experience what it’s really like will make all the difference when it comes to finding solutions. It’s already happened with a focus on delivering longer battery life for those who have difficulty accessing electricity, or louder speakers for cities where background noise is a big issue.

Nokia Asha ushers in new era of innovation

Historically, Nokia’s had a strong presence in growth economies with superior levels of efficiency in manufacturing and unrivaled scale when it comes to distribution. But consumers wanted more innovation, driven largely by what was happening in the smartphone market. Influenced by the featureset of smartphones (which were out of their reach financially) they wanted more from their devices. With Asha, Nokia’s responding, delivering a raft of smartphone-like functionality on very affordable phones. QWERTY? Check. Apps? Check. Internet? Check. Touch? Check. And all on a phone people can actually afford.

The big driver in growth economies recently has been dual SIM. McDowell owns up to Nokia being slow to respond with that one, but is delighted with the 18 million dual SIM phones sold in the last quarter, from pretty much a standing start. 

Those consumer insights come into play here again, enabling Nokia to leapfrog the competition with innovations such as Easy SWAP, which enables users to skip from one SIM card to another without having to switch the device off. What’s even better is that McDowell tells us dual SIM is now business as usual and pretty much every (budget) mobile phone going forward will have both single and dual SIM variants.

Where does Asha come from?

But what of that name, Asha? Where did that come from? McDowell tells us that choosing a name for a global brand is incredibly challenging. Leave aside the legal process, it’s the “connotation check”, where specific names are translated into myriad languages to see if they mean anything they shouldn’t which causes serious challenge. 

While Asha means “hope” in hindi, it’s also a distinct reflection of the aspirations consumers in growth economies have. One of the first names on the list before legal and connotation checking started, McDowell was pleased to learn it passed both tests with flying colors, enabling it to be chosen as the new name. 

Now Asha represents the family of phones at the budget end of the market, where there are in excess of one billion people waiting to get online. With a selection of devices boasting smartphone-rivaling features, Asha’s delivering a lot more than just hope.

Photo by md111 on a Nokia N95