The UK isn’t renowned for its hardware-focused tech brands. Our footing in the smartphone market is even less stable. Kazam, however, is looking to revive our nation’s reputation on both fronts and bring the handset fight to the market’s leading players.
In an industry dominated by Asian and American giants – think Apple, Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola and Huawei – Kazam is an anomaly. Like any underdog, however, the company – founded by two former HTC employees in 2013 – has had to think outside the box and take a different approach.
Instead of chasing the next specs tick box or bargain-basement price tag, the firm has looked to add value where it matters – features that consumers can relate to and get behind. Think free screen repair and 3-year warranties.
So, why did two Brits ditch their jobs at a globally successful smartphone vendor in order to attempt to tackle one of the world’s most competitive industries on their own? Well, according to Kazam co-founder and CMO, James Atkins, it all comes down to needing a sense of purpose.
“Being in a big, global brand like HTC, you are very aware of being a very small cog in a very big machine,” he told us. “Particularly for places like the UK, and Europe, there is a perception on a global scale that we are the United States of Europe. Europe is seen as one entity. I didn’t see what value I was adding to the organisation.”
Having spotted in the early teenies that the smartphone market was pulling in two directions – the specs race to the top and the price race to the bottom – Atkins and fellow co-founder Mike Coombes decided to force their way into the market two years ago with a new proposition, one which focused on the consumers’ needs.
“We used to commute in on the train, and every other person was trying to watch a movie or play a game on a phone with a cracked screen. We thought it would be amazing if we could find a business model whereby if you smash your screen, we will replace it for you free of charge,” Atkins said.
“We don’t need to be a tech innovator to be a tech brand. There is something to say about having the right technology at the right price and differentiate and innovate in areas often overlooked.”
It's this unnecessary need for progression in areas of little benefit that finally forced Atkins and Coombes to transform their dream into a reality. “Everyone has innovated to death in the hardware on the device – can we squeeze another megapixel in, can we get a better screen in? We thought we would come to market with the assumption that the phone is the phone, it has to have a great screen and the best processor, but we don’t have to define ourselves through technology. We can define ourselves by addressing some of the genuine issues,” James explained.
The company’s complimentary screen repair – you get one free display replacement per device, so don’t go dropping it time and time again – lines up alongside Kazam Rescue, a remote diagnostics service designed to fix issues with minimal fuss and disruption. With this combo Kazam has taken focus away from the specs spotlight.
As you might expect, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the UK start-up. Fighting against brands with unfeasibly large marketing budgets, the company has struggled to force its way onto store shelves.
Even when Kazam has hit new milestone moments – signing its first network contract – things haven’t always gone smoothly. Less than 24 hours after penning a deal with Phones 4u, the high-street chain closed its doors for good.
“We weren’t exposed by the Phones 4u bankruptcy,” Atkins explained, “but we put on Facebook how we had signed our first retailer, and then literally the next day they went bankrupt.”
It's gaining these ins with influential sellers which has proven harder than expected for the British brand.
“Consumers are typically warmed by these additional services. The bigger barrier for us has been the industry,” Atkins explained. “To get to the consumers we have to go through the retailers and the operators, and that has been a bigger challenge for us as a business than trying to convince consumers.
“What is their incentive to range a brand like Kazam? If they're selling budget brands and big brands, we're giving a genuine point of difference, but from where they're sat, they have no vested interest in us. We have had to put a lot of time into showing how this will benefit their consumers. They are not nervous of the unknown, but it was a completely different way of looking at the market.”
Slowly but surely these relationships have developed, and Kazam devices can now be found in a number of online and high-street stores. Pleasingly, it's the company’s British roots which seem to be helping pave the way into markets across the continent.
“We were conscious not to splash the British badge on everything when going across Europe,” Atkins explains. “We talked a lot about defining ourselves as a European smartphone brand because we were slightly nervous that we didn’t want it to be something that potentially put a lot of people off.”
The reality, however, has proven very different, with this British branding now one of the company’s key selling tools.
“What we actually found out is that there is quite an appetite abroad for this idea of a British brand. In Spain, our marketing director told me that if we put a Spanish flag on the side of the product nobody would buy it; if we put a British flag on it, everyone would want to buy it.” This is good news for a firm that has branded its smartphone lines – Tornado, Thunder and Trooper – after Royal Navy artillery.
For both better and worse, it appears that formerly overlooked areas of smartphone progression have been cast into the spotlight thanks to Kazam’s efforts. Most notably, HTC launched its screen repair service, HTC Uh Oh, in the US, while the LG G4 offers a similar promise in the manufacturer’s native Korea.
This USP pilfering isn’t of concern to Kazam, however. At least not yet. “It can only be flattering that companies like HTC and LG have introduced their own versions of Screen Protect,” Atkins told us. “The only concern is that we don’t achieve critical mass before they do.”
He added: “I think that they will find it very hard to deliver. Because it is so inherent to our proposition, we are built for offering this. Our whole proposition was built from this and everything we’ve done, the way our infrastructure is laid out, how we fund the repairs, it has all been negotiated and planned from day one.
So, what's next for Britain’s answer to Xiaomi? Well, according to Atkins, the brand is looking to continue to develop its value-added propositions and build on strong smartphone foundations with services and features that consumers can back. Importantly, the company is keen to build its UK standing before running out into the wider world.
“We started two years ago and we are growing in every country. Our biggest problem now is trying to keep it in Europe,” the company’s co-founder said. “We are being pressured to go to South America, Africa, the Middle East. We have had several, pretty progressive meetings about expanding globally, but the general consensus is that we don’t want to spread ourselves too thinly.
“We are looking at what comes next and will be building out Kazam Rescue to something bigger. We are looking at taking chargers out of the boxes because the time is coming where that is possible, and how to make sure our phones are made out of more and more recycled materials.”
Two years in and the future looks strong for Kazam. Having stepped away from gimmicks such as launching the world’s thinnest phone – the Kazam Tornado 348 – the company is now focussing more on growth areas.
According to Atkins, the company will be launching a range of Windows 10 smartphones later this year, with wearables also in the pipeline.