Finally, Helio embarked on a quest for the holy grail of high-end consumer marketing: to use the jargon of marketers, the company wants to design a unique retail experience–indeed, a lifestyle–around its gadgets. To do this, it hired a creative director, Joe Spencer, veteran of such projects as the aluminum skin of Disney’s “Carousel of Progress” exhibit. Spencer designed the Helio flame icon, the Helions, and the concept behind the Helio retail stores–four of them so far, in San Diego, Palo Alto, Santa Monica, and Denver, soon to be joined by a fifth in New York City’s SoHo. At the Santa Monica store one Friday morning, animations designed by Spencer’s creative team played across several screens. In one, Helions with butterfly wings flitted about on a sunflower field, symbolizing the “cross-pollinating of ideas on a network,” he explained.
Besides four “pods” displaying Helio products, the store also features prints of images–like the voluptuous “Sugarluxe Girls” by artist Chandra Michaels–that users can upload as screen savers for $1.99. “One of the design tenets of what we are doing is that we are not a typical gigantic phone company that has no lifestyle attached to it,” Spencer says. Users can even come and get their devices “spa treatments”–pressured-air cleanings, alcohol rubs–for free.
In the half-hour I was at the Santa Monica store, only one customer showed up. Granted, it was a Friday morning, and the store had just opened. And the Ocean is not out yet–it goes on sale this spring. Only then will Helio know whether the stores will be packed with early adopters, drawn in by design, who will become hooked on a machine that delivers. At first, perhaps, interface and functionality will matter more than silver stripes and the thwack of a keyboard. “When a product category emerges, early adopters look from a functional perspective,” says Steve Walker, vice president and global head of marketing at Sony Ericsson. “But when the market matures–with later-adopting consumers, who have less functional demands–the importance of the aesthetic design becomes proportionally more important.”
Helio is certainly aiming at that larger market; it wants to sell phones to more people than geeks, or even hipsters in SoHo and Santa Monica. Already, the device is being discussed in the same breath as the iPhone. But just how the Ocean, the iPhone, and other do-it-all devices will compete and coexist in different markets won’t be clear until the competition, and the shakeout, begin this spring.
Meanwhile, there is no rest for Helio’s designers. Back at headquarters, after our chat, Duarte grabbed a Red Bull out of the fridge in the break room. “One might imagine we’re working on future products as we speak,” he said with a grin.
David Talbot is TR’s chief correspondent.