Why New Nokia wants Gen Zs to spend less time on smartphones

Nokia has created smartphones with powerful selfie cameras for the social media generation.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Jean-Francois Baril, the 67-year-old founder and director of HMD Global, the company that was established to create a new generation of Nokia-branded devices, has the infectious mirth of his favourite customer Generation Z.

Spotting a pair of blue jeans and loafers, he talks with the enthusiasm of a Gen Z, a generation he is banking on to inject fresh life into the Nokia-branded phones.

HMD is wooing the Gen Zs—those born between 1997 and 2012—with a double strategy that is paradoxical. The Finnish firm has created smartphones with powerful selfie cameras for the social media generation, but also feature phones to keep them away from the artificial cyberworld.

Studies show that spending too much in the company of pixilated friends in their screens, and less with their friends, family or colleagues, is having a mental toll on Gen Zs.

Rather than tapping into the nostalgia of the older Generation X and Millennials who witnessed the zenith of Nokia phones, HMD is going after a generation that has probably never seen Nokia 3310, Nokia’s iconic phone that was launched in 2002 when the oldest Gen Z was only five years.

Mr Baril insists they are not abandoning the older customers— Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980) and Millennials (1981 and 1996).

“We don’t abandon anyone. We don’t abandon any customer. But the good thing about the Gen Z is that they set the trend. And this is inspirational,” explains Baril in an interview with the BDLife.

He insists they are just bending to the needs of the Gen Z, who want trendy phones that can also take beautiful photos.

“It is inspirational for me. Nobody wants to like [their] grandfather, but many people want to look like their little daughter or little son. And this is what we are doing,” he adds.

He agrees that in the past, there has been a tendency to obsess over the specs of a phone, which is changing with the Gen Z.

“What we want is a lifestyle kind of mentality,” says Baril, adding this will see them unleash their creativity and make people feel good.

Nokia phones were violently disrupted by the android smartphone even as they stuck with their operating system, Symbian.

In 2013, the US-based technology firm Microsoft then bought the Nokia brand and then silently killed it.

HMD, or the Human Mobile Devices, which was formed by former Nokia employees in Finland, then bought back the Nokia brand in 2016. For 18 months Microsoft killed the Nokia brand while running the Lumia-branded phones which were operating on Windows phone.

Baril is excited about the African customers who he says fit very well with their brand which is going for freshness.

Although Baril says they have been “super successful” in Kenya, he will not disclose their sales. However, he points out they have been able to capture 20 percent of the smartphone market in Kenya.

HMD’s phone sales in Kenya are only second to India globally, thanks to a financing arrangement.

In his last visit to Kenya, just before Covid-19, Mr Baril entered a financing agreement with M-Kopa and Safaricom. The finance programme also comes with the additional benefit of health insurance.

“Since then, Kenya has been the most important country for us, not only in Africa but worldwide for smartphones.”

In early 2022, the Finnish company agreed to assemble mobile phones in collaboration with M-Kopa, an electronics financing firm.

Besides Nokia-branded phones, they also produce HMD-branded phones. The new X20 has the logo of both M-Kopa and HMD on it.

But even as they target the Gen Zs with new trendy phones that taps into their digital mania, Baril knows this population also needs to reduce the browsing binge, if only for their mental health.

Christened the ‘anxious generation,’ Gen Zs can sometimes come off as being in urgent need of a digital detox—a period when one refrains from using digital devices, including smartphones, TVs, and tablets.

They have not only introduced smartphones with superior cameras like C22 and C32, they have also re-introduced feature phones like the iconic Nokia 3310, which the CEO says is doing very well.

“It is nostalgia but also detox type of device,” he said in an interview with BDLife.

He says he has two phones. One is a smartphone which he uses during weekdays and the other is a feature phone which he uses on the weekends when he needs a lot of me-time.

“I don’t need to be absorbed and enslaved by the digital life,” he says.

He wants the same kind of digital consumption for the Gen Zs, who he is, ironically, also targeting with smartphones with selfie cameras of 50 megapixels.

While in most African markets feature phones are bought for their affordability, in the US and Europe they are bought for digital detox.

He is determined to ensure that Gen Z do not become slaves in the digital world, and miss out on the happenings in the real world.

“Enough guys, wake up there is a life. Let us have a beer (this is the principle of Heineken, which they have partnered with). Let us have a beer with friends. Share. Live. Life is not totally artificial,” he explains.

“You have life, be human, be authentic, be yourself. And get these devices to help to increase your capabilities. That is all,” he adds.

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