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What in Palm’s Name?: Aligning Product with Purpose

By Hannah Landers

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction — it’s basic science. So it should come as no surprise, then, that our increasingly technology-obsessed and evermore-connected world has spawned a movement toward digital detox, which might explain the newfound desire for a “minimalist” phone.

Unlike the iPhones and Androids that have become so ingrained in our everyday lives, these phones are smaller and simpler, giving users access to texting, calling, and, occasionally, some rudimentary app on a littler screen and bare-bones interface in an effort to curb the decline in productivity caused by hours of scrolling through Twitter or trying to capture the perfect Instagram photo.

And which reinvigorated brand is poised to lead the charge? None other than Palm — the very same Palm of the once-beloved PalmPilot, a personal digital assistant, or PDA, that put a user’s contact list, calendar, and memo pad just a stylus tap away.

Of course, this Palm has been stylishly retooled for the Instagram age. Unlike the Palms of yore, with their calculator-green screens and chunky plastic frames, this Palm is smaller, sleeker, and looks more like a mini smartphone than the kind of devices that come to mind when thinking about the traditional Palm gadgets. The new Palm is meant to pair with a user’s smartphone, allowing the user to answer calls or return a text without having to lug increasingly large and distracting smartphones around.

But within this brand rebirth is a very glaring inconsistency. While Palm’s original devices served as a powerful connection to a user’s digital life, founders Dennis Miloseki and Howard Nuk are positioning their new Palm product as the answer for those who want to abandon their connection to that world for hours or days at a time. With such contradictory brand purposes, why license the Palm brand at all?

Ultimately, it would seem to come down to a bid to cash in on the nostalgic feelings that come from remembering a time when our connection to the digital world was pretty much severed the moment a user stepped away from their chunky desktop computer. But the fundamental differences between the Palm of then and Palm of now run deep, and aligning this apparently “new” product with a beloved brand simply for the association will leave consumers confused, angry, and with a deeper affinity for what once was rather than excitement about what’s to come.

When personal computing was still coming into its own in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, PDAs emerged as a valuable link to one’s computer when on the go. Users would synchronize their PDA through a cord or a cradle connected to the computer to both upload and download information that they would then have access to without having to be tethered to their desktops.

While later versions of PDAs eventually started to look like (and even become) the modern smartphone, the initial forays into this technology consisted of the basics: a calendar, a memo pad, and contact lists.

Simplistic features or not, however, Palm was all about keeping digitally connected in order to live a more streamlined, organized life. Their initial ads touted the PalmPilot as, “The connected organizer that keeps you in touch with your PC.”

Palm’s products were geared toward busy professionals looking to bring some calm to their personal chaos while keeping pace with a technologically advancing world. As people’s lives — both personal and professional — migrated to computers and the internet, Palm forged that link between the digital world and the real one before smartphones were around to do so.

And yet, the new Palm isn’t meant to be an extension of one’s digital life, but rather a shield from it. Founders Miloseski and Nuk both have roots in the tech world, including respective stints at Google and Samsung, and came out of those experiences looking for a way to put a halt to the revolution they helped accelerate.

“We did a bit of soul searching,” Miloseski told Fast Company. “We’d spent the greater part of 20 years addicting people to technology.”

One of the most prominently touted features is the device’s “Life Mode,” which blocks all calls, messages, and other distractions from impeding on the actions of everyday life. The idea is that the user would turn Life Mode on their Palm devices for the majority of the time, with brief one to two-hour exceptions.

This iteration of Palm, therefore, is meant to be a divorce from technology — or as much as is possible in the tech-driven modern world — which is a complete reformulation of what the Palm brand is about. The version of Palm that Miloseski and Nuk have come up with is a complete contradiction to the core elements of the Palm brand.

This isn’t to say that the purpose underlying the new Palm isn’t valid. Rather, Miloseski and Nuk cannot credibly leverage the nostalgic appeal of the Palm brand when it always stood for something so diametrically opposed to the brand’s newer purpose and story.

Consumers expect to have a certain experience when they pick up a Palm device based on the story that brand has been telling for years. To radically alter that story while still tying it to the brand that people recognize and love is a recipe for disaster.

Even setting aside this conflict of purpose between older Palm and the reincarnation of the brand, the newer Palm simply doesn’t reflect the core elements of the Palm as it is known and loved, even today.

Although Palm wasn’t the first to create the PDA — Apple’s notoriously terrible Newton is one of the most noted predecessors — they’re often fondly remembered as the first company to “get it right” when it came to PDAs. As some companies tried to cram as many features as possible into a tiny interface, Palm PDAs (the “Pilot” part of the moniker was dropped in the late 1990s after a legal dispute with stationery manufacturer Pilot) provided a better user experience, from better data displays to a longer-lasting battery.

“A lot of the folks who approached the [handheld] space had tried to create miniaturized personal computers,” former Palm executive Michael Mace told Fast Company. “The Palm Pilot was an accessory. It was about your calendar and your address book, and that was about it. But it made those things super, super easy to carry with you.”

Tracing the development of the newer Palm makes it clear that they were trying to achieve the same level of well-made minimalism. In initial brainstorms, Miloseski and Nuk envisioned “a black pebble” that would “magically light up” as it responded to the user’s voice. The final version of the Palm, however, looks and acts a lot like a miniaturized iPhone — but not necessarily a good one.

You can do everything from send a Snapchat to post on Instagram to text a friend from the little Palm, although the speed and efficiency of performing those actions on a day-to-day basis remains to be seen, as the little device relies on a low-end processor and limited battery life to get things done.

The device will also be sold exclusively through Verizon and is designed to work better with those that have an Android phone — meaning the millions of Apple users worldwide won’t be able to send and receive iMessages on the Palm, rendering the device essentially useless as an iPhone accessory.

Online tech blogs and news outlets have also pointed out a myriad other flaws and issues, from a lack of a headphone jack (despite the fact that simpler auditory controls is one of the device’s selling points) to the sheer ridiculousness of the fact that this is a screen purported to keep you from looking at your other, bigger screen.

Far from the minimal but highly functional processes of the original Palms, the new Palm seems to be more like old Palm’s competitors: packed full of features but lacking a certain level of design, functionality, and, most importantly, purpose.

The diverging purposes of old and new Palm are also evident in the way the brands have chosen to put forth their messaging. The original Palm devices used messages of increased productivity and organization to speak to busy professionals, but Palm altered that message with later iterations — and reduced their pricing — to appeal to regular people who wanted to stay connected. A series of print advertisements from 2008 depict a version of the Palm Treo with a message onscreen about “80’s night,” for example, with the phone cut in half to reveal a vibrant nightclub scene underneath the message.

The newer Palm has taken a less accessible approach, tapping basketball star Stephen Curry to serve as the face of the brand. Wealthy, talented, and handsome — and with an equally attractive and successful partner to match — Curry is far from the idea of the average consumer. His endorsement of the brand is more aspirational and less realistic than the original Palm brand ever purported itself to be: the new Palm seems more like a product for those that need a break from their adoring fans and ongoing press tours, those who have so much expendable capital that they can carelessly shell out hundreds of dollars for a phone for their phone.

From the product to the messaging to the very purpose that drove the brand into existence (or re-existence), the new Palm and the old Palm could not be more antithetical. Whereas Palm’s original devices used just a few well-made features to help their users better connect to a developing digital world, the new Palm device crams just about every function of a traditional smartphone into an irritatingly tiny, low-functioning package in a confused effort to sever users from those same digital connections.

Without alignment in product, purpose, or other core elements of the two versions of the brand, adopting the Palm name only serves as an attempt to move a new product based solely on the brand name and what that brand created in the past — something that is very different than Palm’s evolving future. Even Curry admitted he was drawn to the company in large part due to the nostalgia evoked by the Palm name, talking about how his father used to have a Palm Pilot that he would allow young Curry to play games on after he was finished with it.

It’s impossible to passably affix a brand to a new product with completely contradictory messaging. Every brand tells a distinct story, and that brand’s products or services are an extension of that story. Although they might have distinct messaging of their own, these messages should always complement the story of the brand itself.

This creates a harmonious image of the brand, allowing customers to see themselves within the story, as well as the ways in which the brand is uniquely poised to help them solve a problem or overcome a hurdle. When the product and brand messages are disjointed, it creates a tension that consumers have a hard time reconciling.

Miloseski claimed that the use of the Palm name wasn’t supposed to be about returning to something familiar, but rather authoring an “invention story” about the ways that a new product can change the way we interact with technology.

Unfortunately, both Miloseski and Nuk are making little effort to tactically and thoughtfully merge the two versions of Palm to reinforce that idea of invention and evolution. Instead, they’re choosing to capitalize on the name to tout a completely different product and message. If this is an invention story, it’s still missing a fitting title.

Hannah Landers is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.