Neville Hobson

A cocoon of life within

An almost organic shape, a skin that provides some unique functionality and a curious name are three characteristics that mark the Cocoon, a new clamshell 3G mobile phone from O2 launched in the UK in August.

I’ve had one to play with since last week, courtesy of VCCP, O2’s ad agency. (Disclosure details here.)

In my first post about this intriguing gadget, I’m not going to talk about its features (well, a little bit). No comments about making phone calls. Nothing about is it simple and easy to use. None of that yet.

Instead, I’m going to talk about two things that have been in my mind each time I’ve thought about or looked at this phone – design and branding.

If you haven’t seen the phone yet, here’s an idea:

That’s a static view of the animated home page of the Cocoon website. It sets the scene for the overall brand experience that is reflected in everything: packaging, presentation, the website, in-store product displays… indeed, the complete brand experience.

It’s called “A Life Within.”

I was intrigued by this descriptor, primarily as I wanted to find out if there was any substance to it or was it just another bit of marketing babble in a market that’s full of such babble.

First, though, a look at the name. Where did that come from?

The origin of the English word cocoon comes from the French word cocon, which itself originates from the Provençal word coucoun meaning eggshell, according to Ask Oxford, the concise online Oxford English Dictionary.

Indeed, the product code inside the phone includes ‘cocon’ although I expect that’s just coincidental.

Googling on the phrase ‘o2 cocoon a life within’ brought me to The O2 Cocoon: A Life Within, a detailed commentary on the from-scratch thinking and planning behind this experiential descriptor by a designer called Levent Ozler, based in Turkey according to his website bio.

It provides an explanation on why ‘cocoon’ was conceived as the brand name.

While Ozler’s case study article gives a PR-ish sounding but useful insight into the thinking and planning – how much better that would have been as a blog post which enabled interaction, ie commenting and trackbacks – I found most value in getting a real sense of this story from a series of detailed sketches included with the commentary, especially this one:

The part of this illustration that sums up for me the ‘life within’ concept is the drawing at the bottom, of the Cocoon with the speech bubbles.

That highlights one feature of this phone which I’ve found really compelling – the scrolling LED display beneath the skin that you will see for a few seconds each time you use the phone or when someone calls you or sends you a text message, among other things.

It does have a more permanent use, though, when you put the Cocoon in its recharging dock (what O2 calls its ‘nest’) as this photo I took of my Cocoon yesterday illustrates:

It’s a clock!

Now I find that very useful. When I travel, I tend to use my mobile phone as an alarm clock no matter what wake-up systems any hotel offers.

But aren’t those usual phone wake-ups pretty boring? A polyphonic tone or perhaps some music depending on your phone?

I can do such things with the Cocoon but more stylishly. I can also choose to be woken up with a favourite or newly-discovered radio station with the phone’s built-in FM radio. And I can press any button along the top of the phone to snooze:

Of course, everyone has their own particular favourite feature in a mobile phone. With the Cocoon, the LED clock feature is probably the strongest one for me so far. I have others, too, commentary about which will come in a later post, along with some critiques.

(Incidentally, I took these photos with the camera on my Nokia N73. Ironic, really, taking pics of one mobile phone with the camera on another brand of phone.)

While Levent Ozler seems to have been the master branding planner along with O2 (someone please correct me if that’s not accurate), [See update note at end of post] The Cocoon design itself was the fruit of labours by many people including Syntes Studio, a design firm based in Stockholm, and Streative Branding, another such firm based in Amsterdam.

Truly an international collaborative project, which I think is reflected in the actual design. It has a distinctly Scandinavian look about it with the sharp distinction in its black and white colouring.

It’s also a project that required some major negotiation with potential manufacturers to get the phone actually made as this quote from Ozler’s story indicates:

[…] even the most logical inventions are not always embraced by the industry. Manufacturers said the O2 Cocoon couldn’t be constructed because it broke the mold of every current mobile phone ‘clone’ on the market. But at Streative the word no is yes in disguise. It cost the team, O2, Syntes and Streative 19 months of blood, sweat and back-to-the-drawing board tears of hassling and negotiating with contractors and factories halfway around the world before we were finally able to bring the O2 Cocoon to life.

A sticker inside the phone and in various bits of the phone package says it’s made in Korea. According to a Tech.co.uk review, the manufacturer is Pantech.

Build quality is excellent. And open or closed, the phone feels good in your hand.

Syntes also has the Story of A Life Within from their perspective, complementing Ozler’s story and providing a nicely succinct view of that experiential branding concept:

[…] A huge challenge in the creation of this phone was to translate the O2 brand into tangible and tactile experiences. The idea of the cocoon concept was to create a form factor that could seamlessly switch between three modes: music player, phone and alarm clock. To achieve this, a new kind of clamshell phone was invented with a seamless hinge-instead of the usual ‘two halves joined togetherâ€. The seamlessness of the form combined with the story of a Life Within formed the foundation for the name ‘O2 Cocoon”. The Life Within is conveyed by the clear contrast between inside and “outside”, the de-bossed symbols and the hidden exterior LED-display that “speaks to the user” by displaying personal messages such as “good morning” or “incoming call”.

For their part, Streative has A Life Within, a blog “detailing the collaboration, production and distribution process of the Cocoon phone.”

Will the Cocoon live up to its creators’ goals of it being a ‘fresh lifestyle device,’ one that breaks the mould of traditional mobile phone design, branding, positioning and marketing?

Good question. It’s certainly garnered lots of positive media attention since O2 announced it in June.

I’ve not seen any advertising for it yet nor other communication support from O2 other than displays in two of their retail outlets (Reading and Kingston).

[Later: Actually there has been some TV advertising although I’ve not seen it. Here’s a YouTube link to one such 30-second TV spot featuring the unmistakable voice of Sean Bean.]

Maybe that will change as we get closer to Christmas especially when the iPhone launches in Europe, expected in time for the holiday season here. What’s very interesting about this is that there’s some speculation that O2 will be the iPhone service provider in the UK.

If that turns out to be the case, I think we’ll see some very interesting communication activity to differentiate such mobile devices (note I didn’t say ‘phones’).

One final thing to mention in this post are the key specifications of the Cocoon:

As for what I think of it as a user, apart from the cool LED clock, that’s a story for another day…

[Update 18/9/07] A clarification on who did what re the design of the Cocoon comes in an email today from Streative Branding:

Hi Neville,

We’ve read your article about the O2 Cocoon and wanted to let you know that Levant Ozler only wrote about this project.

We at Streative developed the whole project with O2 & Syntes Design as you can read on www.alifewithin.com Could you maybe change this on your website?

Thanks in advance.

Kind regards,
Nalden

Happy to set that record straight and thanks for the clarification, Nalden.

In the original post, I made some comment on the Cocoon vs the iPhone and what might happen if O2 wins the contract to be Apple’s partner for the iPhone in the UK.

That was confirmed this morning at a press conference in London – O2 has won the exclusive contract to sell the iPhone in the UK.

See separate post (link coming as soon as I’ve written the post).

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