Personalizing Mobile Devices

In an instant, we can send an email, post a status, pin a new recipe, place an order for flower delivery and make a dentist appointment sans receptionist—from our fingertips, while on the train to work. The technological advances that are evolving cell phones into smartphones and creating portable touch-screen computers have released the chains that once tethered a person to a desk or cord. Online meetings can be attended from a park, and a grandmother in her living room across town or across the pond can be seen and heard, crystal clear, by a bewildered toddler enjoying a bedtime story like only Nana could tell.

We have never been more in touch with the world around us, on our terms and at our chosen convenience. Yet, in this fascinating new landscape of global connectivity and liberation, we have also become somewhat unidentifiable from the person next to us in line for coffee. Or from anyone in the entire café, for that matter. Not because we’ve surrendered our personalities or any qualities that make us, us, to partake in this culture-changing phenomenon, but rather because we hold in our hands (and laptop cases, purses and backpacks) the exact same mobile devices that were mass-produced to fit our newfound demands and surpass our expectations with every new release.

As the products grow in capability and ease of use, the population scrambles to acquire these new devices and collectively sigh in awe of the latest possibilities. However, though consumers may resemble a statistical clump clutching identical electronic wonders, the desire to be recognized as individuals and to freely express one’s character isn’t easily stifled. That’s very good news for retailers, as the ability to offer personalization qualities to the sea of indistinguishable screens can direct that mass of savvy gadget-owners right to your doorstep.

One In A (Hundred) Million

If sales projections indicate anything, the market is at the precipice of a complete mobile personal device onslaught and is already posting staggering numbers. In 2011, 30 percent of the U.S. population owned a smartphone; not just a mobile phone, but a smartphone, specifically. That number is expected to increase to 44 percent by this year’s end, meaning that there will be 140 million smartphones in the U.S. alone by the time “Auld Lang Syne” plays. Of those, 52 percent will be Apple and Samsung products.

The first billion smartphones to be sold took 16 years, but experts predict that the two billion mark will be passed as early as 2015, in just three short years’ time. This holiday season is also expected to bring 20 million iPads and five million iPad Minis into the hands of gleeful recipients, and 2013 projections call for 71 and 24 million iPads and iPad Minis, respectively, to be sold.

That is an astounding, and brief, round-up of figures. Perhaps first regarded as gratuitous toys for the technology elite, the time-saving, user-friendly and intuitive properties of these portable electronic devices have changed the entire face of the market they now dominate. And if the estimated statistics ring(tone) true, we have zero intention of putting down these on-the-go computers anytime soon.

Besides, when a person does set down their mobile electronic accessory, how can it be differentiated from anyone else’s?

Making What’s Yours, Yours

Electronics engraving is one method guaranteed to put a personal stamp on the millions of mobile devices being carried today. “The demand for mobile device personalization, also known as ‘tech tattoos’ has been steadily increasing over the past four or five years,” says James Stanaway of Epilog Laser in Golden, Colorado. “Not only does mobile device personalization help add a personal flair to mass-produced items like cell phones, laptops and gaming devices, but it is also a great theft deterrent.”

According to Stanaway, a device is less likely to be swiped if the owner’s name is on it or if it includes other artwork specific to someone’s style and personality. “In a world where mobile devices are produced by the millions, everyone wants to make their own device stand out. You may have the same laptop as a million other people, but they may not have your favorite quote or original design engraved across the cover.”

Epilog laser engraved the original iPhone when it launched in 2007, and was also the first laser manufacturer to etch the iPhone 5 just this fall. Offering mobile device personalization at various events, including the popular Maker Faires, is how Stanaway initially noticed the demand for customizing electronics. For a few who have already witnessed the possibilities within this niche, that service has turned into a full-time operation. “While some of our customers report personalization is only a portion of their business, many Epilog Laser customers have enough demand that this is their sole application and money-maker.”

For the most part, customers can use the laser to directly personalize tech gadgets. “Since our systems work much like a printer, you can simply import your artwork and send it to the laser as you would a normal ink print job,” Stanaway says. This process works well for many popular electronics materials such as plastics, anodized aluminum, glass and more.

“We’ve found that the possibilities of mobile device personalization are virtually endless. Our customers (and Epilog’s corporate staff) have engraved not only cell phones, but laptop covers, Kindles, iPads, the Google Nexus, mobile gaming devices like Nintendo DS and PSP’s, digital cameras and much more.” Essentially, if it’s portable and it’s ours, we want people to know that.”

“As soon as mobile devices became popular, people started personalizing them. When the iPhone was first introduced, the trend exploded,” notes Steven Tu of Roland DGA Corp. in Irvine, California. “The market for customized mobile devices continues to grow, fueled by both their popularity and the many printing and engraving technologies available to turn them into customized accessories.”

Roland has been in the personalization market for more than two decades, and offers a number of products that can be used to personalize mobile devices across both printing and engraving product lines. Says Tu, “Our newest UV-LED printer, the VersaUV LEF-12, was designed specifically to customize three-dimensional objects up to 11” X 12” and approximately 4” thick, making it a perfect tool for all customizing mobile devices.” Users can include full-color graphics such as a favorite photo or unique design, and can also print white text and graphics for added impact. Prints are further enhanced with the printer’s clear ink, which creates interesting spot varnishing and embossing effects in both matte and gloss finishes.

In addition, Roland offers eco-solvent printer/cutters that print and contour cut graphics in one workflow, perfect for creating skins or wraps in just about any shape. A complete line of engravers and impact printers which add elegant, permanent engraved text, logos and graphics to metal and acrylic surfaces, ideal for engraving a student’s name and phone number on his or her iPod for identification purposes, is also available.

This equipment can generate ROI through diverse uses, too. “Users that invest in a system primarily to customize mobile devices can branch out into the promotional items market, personalizing pens, golf balls, key chains, flashlights, USB drives, frames, plaques, trophies and awards,” Tu says. Other applications include custom cosmetics packaging, which transforms these products into branded fashion accessories. “We even have users creating custom nail decals for salons. Our end-users continue to develop new, creative applications for the technology.”

This fall, Coastal Business Supplies in Maryland Heights, Missouri introduced a new way to personalize mobile devices and keep them ahead of the trends. SKINPrintables is an inkjet printable skin that can be applied to iPhones, iPads, laptops and more.

“Everyone can have their own individual mobile device case to express their own identity,” says Coastal’s Aaron Montgomery. The SkinPrintables are an inkjet vinyl material that comes with software and templates. “This product is great because it only requires a computer and an inexpensive inkjet color printer. The software takes the image and puts it in the template and will even make a matching wallpaper design that can be uploaded to the phone or other mobile device.” The product comes with tabs that are user guides, so applying the skin simply involves setting the mobile device inside the tabs and pressing down, and the product won’t leave behind a sticky residue, allowing users to change the skin to suit any mood.

The ability to change mobile device personalization while maintaining said personalization is a concept that will appeal to throngs of consumers, and that opportunity is exactly what ChromaLuxe captures with its Fashion Frame line of interchangeable personalized inserts. Using antimicrobial scratch-, abrasion- and UV-resistant metal HD inserts, ChromaLuxe, of the Universal Woods family in Louisville, Kentucky, presents consumers with the ability to purchase (read: presents retailers with the ability to sell) packages of device covers with multiple inserts designed to reflect the owner’s daily schedule.

The company’s Jim Woodhouse describes how this unique identifying capacity can morph with an end-user’s persona and wardrobe, wherever the week may take them. For example, a Monday morning client meeting would call for a company logo insert to be prominently displayed on an electronic device during business hours. Later that evening, the same customer can swap out the insert to represent a favorite NFL team in time for Monday Night Football, and then decide on a beloved family photo first thing Tuesday morning.

“It’s a way to make that smartphone or tablet a dynamic part of your lifestyle,” says Woodhouse. “ChromaLuxe is unique in that you can constantly, daily, if you choose, evolve your device to reflect your day-to-day life. You can buy a case of your color and texture choice, and then multiple images produced through sublimation to insert in that case.”

With the rapid-fire pace by which technology giants are releasing new versions and upgrades, Woodhouse acknowledges the necessity of staying one step ahead of companies like Apple and Samsung by way of “slipstreaming.” The idea of slipstreaming is comparable to the method of drafting, practiced by racecar drivers and distance runners to fall in behind a strong leader and allow themselves to be pulled along efficiently.

Manufacturers and retailers can’t be unaware of tech product lifestyle trends when the numbers are of this magnitude, he advises. “It means we have to be well connected to have the specifications of a product such as the iPhone 5, well before it is launched, and then be nimble and fast to launch, ourselves.” This way, the company will have cases for new products within weeks of its public availability.

Woodhouse continues, “We need to be a participant in the global markets with close working relationships throughout the infrastructure of the high-tech portable device markets and remain highly focused on the channel so that we know when Samsung will be releasing their next Galaxy version.” By talking to the people that are working on the devices to learn what the product will look like, the manufacturer can start on tooling before the product is ever introduced. This readiness presents an opportunity for retailers to sell their products to a brand-driven customer base in a way they’ve never been able to before.

Who’s Driving The Trend Train?

“We see the personalization market as one that crosses gender and generational lines,” says Tu. “Personalization appeals to just about anyone at any age because adding a personal touch to valued items makes them even more valuable to the consumer.”

As a manufacturer, Tu says, Roland targets a variety of end-users and markets with the company’s technologies, from awards and engraving shops to graphic designers, event planners, photographers, promotional items businesses and entrepreneurs. “Many Roland personalization businesses position themselves to reach consumers in shopping malls and other venues with heavy foot traffic.” The key to success is having great samples on hand. “Once the consumer sees the visual impact of personalization, they make the investment every time, and they walk away with an item that is truly unique.”

Montgomery’s findings also reflect that the idea of personally branding an item that has become an integral part of daily life with a sense of “you”ness resonates positively with end-users across the spectrum. “This is the real beauty of these processes, that you have no real limitation,” he says. “If you go to a national retail store, you can find pre-printed patterned design cases selling for nearly $40, so to be able to take the picture of your kids or the family and carry it with you on the outside of your phone is an awesome option to have and worth a good deal of money to most people.” He states that a majority of Coastal customers who are successful with the SKINPrintable products have a well-placed storefront location, again with plenty of templates available for customers to drop personalization into, and a quick turnaround time.

“What I find most appealing is that awards and engraving retailers, with a product like ChromaLuxe, can now reach a substantially broader customer base than ever before with their existing technology, skills and capital,” says Woodhouse. Without going out and buying new equipment, the existing infrastructure can now be leveraged to reach new customers, while this new product grouping can be offered to existing customers as an add-on sale to traditional orders. “Retailers can go to their sports teams and schools, and offer packages of interchangeable photo inserts to represent the organization, which is a dynamic add-on resulting in new sales for programs that have been forced to make dramatic cuts in recent times.”

To stay on top of this developing trend, Stanaway notes how Social media has become a fast favorite in terms of marketing this service. “Since it’s quite visual—you actually have to see some of these engravings to believe the detail—laser service providers often will post promotions or share photos and videos of the engraving process on their Facebook page or website.” He says word of mouth is another way this market is becoming more informed: people want to tell everyone about their custom device, not only because the laser results are intricate and precise, but having something different and unique definitely adds to the “cool” factor.

Who knows cool better than teens, the trend-drivers of today and tomorrow? If teens develop brand loyalty early-on, lifetime sales can be captured if the products live up to their initial output and improve accordingly. According to a recent Piper Jaffray survey of 7,700 teens:

• 40 percent own iPhones (up from 34 percent six months ago).
• 62 percent plan to buy an iPhone in the next six months (22 percent said their next phone would run Android).
• 44 percent own a tablet (up from 36 percent six months ago).
• Of those who own tablets, 72 percent own iPads.
• Of those who do not own tablets, but plan to buy one in the next six months, 74 percent hope to buy an iPad.
• 43 percent said they’d be more likely to buy an iPad when/if Apple released a smaller version of the device at $299.

Also, though the average teen may not walk into a retailer and purchase a plaque or trophy, they will certainly appear if mobile device personalization services are being offered. The fact that award retailers are also in the business of graphic design can only open doors to creative and unique decorating possibilities to appeal to each customer’s need for individuality.

It Only Goes Forward From Here

“From a strategy standpoint, here is a market that is enormous, dynamic and evolving. It is upgrading annually, and it involves the strongest, most powerful brands in the world,” says Woodhouse. “Devices are mass-produced, and, out of the box, they all look alike. For us, sublimation, as a technology, is extraordinary because we can take this technology and take these ubiquitous smartphones and tablets that all look alike, and make them unique, one-of-a-kind art pieces, and that’s a pretty exciting space for any company to be in, I think.”

It certainly is. As 2012 has shown, the new next big thing is always on the horizon, which means tapping into the mobile device personalization market can secure manufacturers and retailers with a customer base ever-ready to upgrade for years to come. By the time holiday lights are taken down to be stored away until next winter, people in the tens of millions will be the delighted new owners of the exact same portable electronic devices. With the latest customization trends described here, those identical end-users can walk into stores and shops en masse, and emerge recognizable as the individual free spirits we inherently strive to be considered.

Tech-savvy free spirits, with mobile electronic devices that just became even more appealing to the beholder (and dramatically less attractive to potential thieves), at that. We can return to the local café knowing that no other patron has a remotely similar electronic accessory by any stretch, though both devices likely shared a shelf or conveyor belt at one time. Mobile device personalization is a white-hot service offering that retailers are going to want to have their names and faces on, and they now, quite literally, can.