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Backup and synch may become the new battleground for brand loyalty

In today’s competitive mobile marketplace, wireless carriers, content providers and device manufacturers vie for brand loyalty through the offering of value-added services and applications.

Amid the vast array of mobile applications such as LBS and navigation, voice over IP, email, SMS and MMS, backup and synchronization apps have emerged as an interesting new tool to keep consumers attached to a brand.

With feature phones, consumers tend to be locked into a carrier for value-added services and application stores.

The emergence of smartphones has freed consumers from the carriers’ “walled garden” by offering far more service and application options.

Device manufacturers are beginning to realize that they do not want to be marginalized in the new/digital/social media world.

Many of them have jumped on the mobile application bandwagon.

Nokia has the Ovi Store.

Samsung has bada and Synchronicity.

Sony Ericcson has PlayNow.

Some of them offer value added services, such as Nokia’s Ovi Maps to provide navigation and Motorola’s MOTOBLUR for social media aggregation.

However, one pivotal area where device manufacturers can play that stands to drive true brand retention is backup and synchronization services when a consumer switches phones.

Ovi by Nokia arguably is the most well known and most robust offering in this area.

The Ovi service backs up and synchronizes contacts, email addresses, SMS/MMS/IM texting contacts, media and Ovi Store applications.

The Novia Ovi Suite enables users to manage their contacts from a computer desktop.

Nokia is not alone.

Sony Ericcson phone owners can use the device’s onboard contacts, bookmarks and calendar features to store the respective information in an internet cloud that is accessible via a standard Web browser.

In both cases, when people replace a Nokia- or Sony Ericcson-branded phone, their contact lists, bookmarks and calendar settings can be retrieved and ported from an old phone or cloud-based backup to the new device.

Here is where things get interesting.

This backup and synchronization feature works across different operators.  If, for example, Nokia phone owners choose to leave one operator (e.g. AT&T) and move to another (e.g. Verizon), they could bring all of their important contact, Web, and calendar information to the new operator, as long as they picked a Nokia phone with a new service plan.

Extending the example, AT&T has been able to grab significant market share due to its exclusive relationship with Apple for the iPhone.

At a recent speech before the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Verizon Communications CEO Ivan Seidenberg said his company was open to the iPhone, but that the final decision on bringing the device to Verizon Wireless was Apple’s.

Apple has its MobileMe app that performs backup over the Web.

How much more of the global handset market could the company secure if iPhone users or prospective buyers could freely choose from multiple operators and not worry about losing all the vital information on their phones?

Besides device manufacturers, operating system (OS) players like Google and Microsoft have entered the mix.

Google Sync performs various synchronization functions depending on the type of mobile device, including Gmail, contacts and calendar sync.

Microsoft’s MyPhone and the new, more evolved Kin service offer unlimited backup and synchronization of contacts, RSS/social feeds, photos/videos, and SMS/MMS/IM texting contacts for Microsoft-branded phones.

Kin performs contact management and social networking publishing, and provides a Kin Studio application for desktop management.

In a sense, device manufacturers and mobile OS players may drive an evolution of cross operator functionality, very much like number portability where consumers can take their phone numbers with them when they switch operators.

Now, consumers can bring all of their mobile phone content – whether it is user generated, licensed, or otherwise – with their phone number when they switch service providers.

The operators will not drive this functionality, of course.  It will happen as a result of device manufacturers and OS players creating cloud-based services that enable “mobile content portability.”

As long as device manufacturers continue to offer compelling, hot new devices that draw interest from consumers, they should stick with the brand in the same manner as people purchase all their cars from a single auto maker (e.g. Ford, Chevy, Toyota, etc.).

Like trusting an auto maker’s service department or the reliability of the brand, if the customer experience using a device manufacturer or OS player’s backup or synchronization service is easy, fast, and dependable, customer retention and brand loyalty will exist at the handset or OS level, versus the operator.

So, how can operators stave off any brand erosion that device manufacturers or OS players may cause?  One option is to provide high standards of quality of service (QoS) and coverage.

But that game can be subjective, as a customer experience can vary depending on location, which apps are running and load on the cell towers from other users.

Another option for mobile operators is offering more value-added services, including backup and synchronization.

For example, Verizon offers its MyVerizon service that provides free email that is easier to access than other email clients.

Keeping the same email account can tether users to the brand.

The service also includes BackUp Assistant, which automatically backs up a subscriber’s mobile contacts to a cloud-based online address book, enabling easy editing and management from a standard Web browser as well as transferring of contact data if a phone is lost, stolen, or damaged.

Vodafone offers its subscribers a similar backup and synchronization tool that helps preserve address book contacts and other vital phone information.

Since users are unlikely to perform a backup function with a device manufacturer’s application after they have already performed the same function with an operator’s backup tool, mobile operators have an opportunity to grab brand “allegiance” early and keep it long-term.

Because the process occurs automatically, backup serves as a measure of insurance for subscribers should anything happen to their phones because it is easier for subscribers to walk into an operator’s consumer storefront than try to contact a handset manufacturer or OS player’s customer support hotline.

In an increasingly competitive landscape, while all the industry players are “upping their game” with new services and applications, mobile operators do not want to lose “brand share” or subscribers over a function that is as core as backup and synchronization.

Mohan Sadashiva is senior vice president of marketing at FusionOne, San Jose, CA. Reach him at [email protected].