July 1st, 2010

No Context: Why the Kin Failed

By Kyle Morich

The Microsoft Kin, the oddly shaped and curiously marketed ‘social’ phone from the Redmond, Washington software giant, was officially terminated today.  It was six weeks old.

In what many are pointing to as the shortest market lifespan of any major technology company offering, the Kin was a spectacular failure for Microsoft’s newly organized consumer products division.  But do understand, Microsoft did not expect this.  I’ll guarantee that this phone was a major line item on the company’s research and development budget.  The problem is that for all the effort that went into developing the little social phone, Microsoft missed satisfying a critical component of consumer behavior: Context.

The press has hit upon several reasons for its failure: the smartphone-tier pricing for a less-than-smartphone product, the strange positioning in their advertisements, and even the inability of social networking to serve as a segmentation platform.  All of these are somewhat true, but they are all symptoms of the same disease.  Microsoft did not clearly establish the right context for the Kin in the minds of its target audience.

Context is a multi-layered construct that the brain uses to organize its perception of the world.  Consider your kitchen pantry.  When you open the door at breakfast, you only see breakfast foods.  When you open it at dinner, the cereal and granola bars disappear, and you only see potential dinner items.  Context is a filter that helps the unconscious mind streamline its decision-making.  When the brain does not associate a brand or product with a particular context, it literally disappears.

Context also determines thresholds for conscious involvement.  None of us would pay $72 for a 12-pack of Bud Light at the grocery store.  But at a baseball game, most of us don’t bat an eye at shelling out $8 for a 16-oz watered down light beer (and even if we do grumble about it, we fork over the money anyway).    Context not only reduces our decision-making options, it sets the parameters that trigger conscious involvement.

Microsoft (and Verizon Wireless, who carried the Kin phone) screwed up by aiming after one context but setting their marketing variables around another.  The thresholds were not aligned.  This phone was supposed to be a flashy high-tech organizer that let the user manage her social contacts like a little black book did for generations before.  The device was even linked to a new social organizing software that was receiving positive reviews.  Unfortunately, Microsoft or Verizon did nothing in their marketing to indicate to users that the Kin was this ‘21st century rolodex’ that also happened to be a phone.  Their advertisements basically showed a girl checking Facebook, which we can all do through an Apple or Android app, and sending notes to friends, which we do through text messaging and email everyday.  And the pricing – requiring users to get a smartphone data plan even though they could not browse the web and get the full smartphone experience – further cemented the Kin in the smartphone context.  Now instead of the Kin operating in the context of contact organization, it is instead marketed in the smartphone context, a crowded, competitive landscape filled with many high-tech devices that do amazing things.  This made the Kin look silly, low-tech, and a waste of money.

I’m not saying that a phone designed to link social networks was a good idea.  I’m suspicious any time a large company starts throwing around ‘social networking’ and ‘web 2.0’ – it always feels like my father saying ‘tight’ or ‘bling.’  Also, there are clear reports that the internal management of the Kin project was awful and problem-ridden from the onset.  But by positioning their phone in the wrong context, the Kin never had a chance.

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