The Coming Era of “Brand in the Hand” Marketing

The growing popularity of cell phones and other hand-held mobile devices has opened up new marketing possibilities.

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Mobile marketing is the most personal medium available. People run their lives off of mobile. It’s business, it’s personal, it’s information gathering. It’s on 24/7. We call it the “brand in the hand.”

— Global Media Manager, Adidas International

First it was the Internet. Now, the convergence of the Web and wireless technology has begun to challenge many of the assumptions companies have about their marketing strategies. Indeed, the combination of the Internet and hand-held mobile devices is making possible a whole new array of marketing applications and offerings. This is what we refer to as “brand in the hand” —the potential for branding and marketing communications to be delivered to people in their hands while they are shopping, watching a sporting event, commuting, working or doing chores at home.

In the past, advertising and branding models were based primarily on 30-second commercials and magazine ads. Today, the growth of digital and mobile communications is changing so fast that consumers may soon find themselves interacting with brands in fundamentally different ways. For now, the target delivery medium for mobile marketing applications is cell phones, personal digital assistants and other hand-held devices. But scenarios such as the one in the film “Minority Report,” in which holographic point-of-purchase displays for the likes of Gap clothing engage passers-by by name, are not that far off in certain Asian and European markets.

Before companies rush into this new marketing arena, though, they need to understand some fundamental issues. For starters, in what ways does mobile marketing differ from traditional approaches? Moreover, when should a company pursue a brand-in-the-hand initiative — and when should it not? And how should firms integrate such a novel approach within their overall marketing strategies?

Getting Personal

For many people, the cell phone, PDA or other hand-held device has become virtually a necessity of everyday life. (See “The Global Spread of Mobile Technology.”) In particular, young consumers, who tend to be technology-savvy multitaskers, have quickly adopted mobile devices to socialize, play online games and download content, including music, ring tones and wallpaper backgrounds. Within this market segment, cell phones have become a status symbol and a means for individuals to express themselves through customized face plates, ring tones, carrying cases and so on. In this sense, cell phones have become similar to clothing, jewelry and other external communicators of the self.



1. G. Silverman, “Ad Agencies Sound Alert Over the Mobile Phone Generation,” Financial Times, Nov. 9, 2004, p. 20.

2. S. Yonish, “Why Technographics Work,” research report (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Forrester Research, November 2001). This report defines 10 consumer segments based on technology use and acceptance. Research also suggests that the greater interactivity inherent in Web-based communications has a positive effect on brand performance, including consumer-loyalty intentions. See C. Mathwick, “Understanding the Online Consumer: A Typology of Online Relational Norms and Behavior,” Journal of Interactive Marketing (winter 2002): 40–55.

3. “McDonald’s 2003 – ‘Finding Nemo’: Got a Shark Biting on Your Mobile?” case study,

4. B. Steinberg, “Going Beyond TV to Woo Hip Youth,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 26, 2005, p. B2.

5. Z. Rodgers, “Nokia Supports ‘Starbucks’ Scenario,” Feb. 10, 2005,

6. “New Order Uses Bluetooth Posters to Send Music Clips Direct to Cellphones,” Mar. 12, 2005, case study,; and “New Order Pioneers Digital Posters,” Mar. 3, 2005,

7. Mobile 365, “Mobile 365 + Mindshare Rev Up Volvo’s S40 Campaign,” case study,

8. “Citibank Alerts: Wireless Banking in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia-Pacific,” case study,

9. Mobile 365, “Mobile 365 + OgilvyOne Use Mobile Element in Dove Campaign,” case study,

10. This draws on the concept of viewing marketing communications efforts as an investment rather than an expense. See D.C. Court, J.W. Gordon and J. Perrey, “Boosting Returns on Marketing Investment,” McKinsey Quarterly, no. 2 (2005) online edition,

11. MTV has successfully exported and grown its brand globally by customizing its programming with local tastes and content. MTV now reaches 331 million homes outside the United States in 164 countries. See J.L. Robert, “World Tour,” Newsweek, June 6, 2005, 34–35.

12. There are numerous sources for information about the prospects for emerging technology standards such as WiMax. For example, the city of Philadelphia is planning to build a WiMax network covering approximately 60% of the city. See C. Golvin, L. Godell and M. de Lussanet, “Let’s Get Real About WiMax,” research report (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Forrester Research, July 13, 2005) as well as “WiMax May Pose Fresh Challenge to Broadband,” Mar. 1, 2005, and S.B. Shor, “Intel Releases First WiMAX Chip,” Apr. 18, 2005,

13. Adidas decided to price downloadable content at $1.99, except for voice tones, which were priced at $2.99. Authors’ interviews with executives in the Global Media Group at Adidas International.

14. For more information on the role of firm-based learning and selective experimentation with respect to e-business strategy, see N. Venkatraman, “Five Steps to a Dot-Com Strategy: How to Find Your Footing on the Web,” Sloan Management Review 41, no. 3 (spring 2000): 15–28.


The authors are grateful to the Institute for Global Innovation Management within the College of Business Administration at Northeastern University for its ongoing support of this research.

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