Would you spend £17 000 on a mobile phone? The vast majority of us would probably answer no, and that means Frank Nuovo has set himself a difficult task.
Perhaps best known as vice-president and chief designer for Nokia, Nuovo is also founder and creative director of luxury mobile phone company Vertu. The company sells two key product ranges: its entry level phone, Ascent, which launched earlier this year priced at £2450; and the premium Signature range, which costs anything up to £17 000 for a platinum version.
Nuovo is responsible for both designing the company’s products and for its image and identity, across applications ranging from retail interiors to print. At Vertu he is supported creatively by the company’s ‘small in-house team, comprising a few key creative staff’. He also works with The Partners on branding strategy, and RPA on retail interiors.
But, he admits, the brand ‘is very much a personal venture’. ‘From a design standpoint everything flows through me,’ he says. And it’s clear that much of his personality is articulated in the brand he founded.
The Vertu idea was conceived ‘before the bubble burst’, he acknowledges ruefully, but did not launch until ‘just after 11 September’ 2001. Although economic conditions remain less than salubrious for premium brands, Nuovo maintains there is a need for a high end product in the mobile phone sector.
‘All categories have a luxury level, think of crystal water glasses compared to plastic beakers. In personal products, from eyewear to watches to pens, there is an evolution towards luxury,’ he maintains.
‘People want choice. Nokia has a wide range of products, style categories and cost segments. I pushed hard for a premium category.’
Nuovo belongs to that breed of supremely confident, wealthy west-coast Americans. He is self contained rather than brash, a man whose taste tends toward classic design rather than fashion-led styling and with a distinct bent for luxury.
Nuovo is driven. He commutes between the US and Nokia’s other design centres in Europe and Asia every month – between 30 and 40 per cent of his time is spent away from his Californian home and young family.
A keen car collector, he bought a ‘hi-tech, cutting-edge style’ BMW 545 last week and also owns a Porsche Carrera – a ‘design classic’ – and a 1952 Bentley, ‘the hand craftsmanship represents the glory years of automotive design’, he says. His fourth car, a ‘practical Honda mini van’ – is his wife’s favourite.
You sense that his love of luxury stems in part from a personal drive to compensate for the long hours by treating himself and his family to a ‘lifestyle’.
The OED definition of an ‘object of vertu’ is ‘an article that is interesting because of its antiquity, beauty, quality of workmanship’, and Nuovo is at pains to stress that the brand is based around ‘craftmanship and longevity’ rather than simply extravagance. It is one of the few times in the conversation that he moves from being simply articulate towards a more passionate position.
‘[The price] is not a marketing gimmick and the brand isn’t about bling. I regret that at the launch it was all about gold and platinum. It’s not about precious materials, it’s about longevity.
‘Many of our customers request diamond inlay. I resist that because it’s against the true, authentic nature of what we’re doing. Vertu is not a bling brand,’ he asserts.
The basis of the brand is ‘extraordinary communication’, he says, and fine art is a key theme. The product is always ‘framed’ in advertising executions and the packaging is also designed to act as a ‘long rectangular frame’ for the product.
But the success of this positioning is under review. The company hopes to target a new market with the entry level Ascent and Nuovo talks of ‘opening up’ the brand and ‘becoming more personable’. The Partners is working with him to identify ‘what it is we can do to refine’ the brand.
‘People into high art loved the original positioning, but others didn’t associate with it. So we want to warm it up a bit and make it more approachable,’ he explains.
Nuovo reverts to a car-based analogy for his final comment on the Vertu brand. He defines it as the ‘Formula One approach to mobile communications.
‘You break rules to get performance and quality. It’s not about bells and whistles, he says.
Frank Nuovo’s CV
1986 Art Centre College of Design, Pasadena
1986 Designer, Designworks, US
1989 Designer, Nokia
1995 to date Head of design, Nokia
2001 to date Founder and creative director, Vertu