Tech Talkies

[Tech Talkies] Pekka Rantala: HMD’s red-footed, blue bleeding Nokia “feel” person!

No one captures the feel of the brand the way he does,” says Risha Magu, Global Communications Director, HMD Global.

Within a few minutes of speaking to HMD Global’s Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Pekka Rantala, we get exactly what she meant. He is amiably energetic on stage and gestures often. There is laughter in his voice. His blue eyes, behind rather minimalistic glasses, twinkle in a manner that would make LED indicators on phones jealous. He perhaps knows more about Nokia than anyone else does – he reminded the audience at a recent launch that the Nokia ringtone was actually taken from a composition by a Spanish guitar maestro that was more than a hundred years old, and during his first, two-decade-long tenure at Nokia, was known to some as the Lord of Messaging.

Oh, and he also often wears red shoes.

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The blue guy with red shoes!

The secret of my red shoes?” he says, bursting into laughter when we ask him. “Shall I tell you exactly the truth? Well, it was September 2016, and I was walking in Oxford Street in London. And I wanted to have a new pair of shoes. So I went to a shop there. I found the right kind of size. And my favorite color is blue (I am a blue-eyed person). Now, they did not have any blue shoes available. But they had red shoes. So I said, “Ok, I will take these red shoes.” Then I fell in love with these red shoes so much that I think that this is now my third pair of red shoes now!

He pauses and then adds:

But to be honest, I love colors. And it is like maybe, I don’t know if it is good for a marketing person but colors like this speak to me. I have also noticed that as in today, it is a good conversation opener. But I am not doing that intentionally. It just that so many people are curious that “why do you have those red shoes?” And I was in Russia a few weeks ago, and as you know red is special for Russia, so they were so happy to see my red shoes.

He laughs again. “As I said, this is not intentional. It is just that…perhaps it is a good start of the day to put the red shoes. You feel energetic. Now I have more sporty red shoes.

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And he then does the most unusual thing we have ever seen from a chief marketing officer – he actually lifts his foot to table level to show a very bright red shoe, triggering a gale of laughter. Energy is certainly not in short supply with Pekka Rantala. There is a gentle bustle about him. No, he is never pushy, nor does he crackle with the sort of nervous energy that some senior executives possess. You do, however, sense the enthusiasm in his voice and manner when he speaks. It is not aggressive, but it envelops, and you would need a heart of stone not to smile along when he does. Oh, and he certainly smiles a lot.

Into Nokia…and Africa!

The laughter having subsided, we ask him about his association with Nokia. For, Pekka Rantala is one of the Nokia originals (the original Bleed Blue squad as some refer to them, after the company’s color!), having joined the company in the early nineties and being with it for almost twenty years, before leaving for a brief sojourn with Rovio (yeah, them Angry Birds folks) and then coming back to HMD, when the Finnish startup took over the Nokia brand. He leans back, thinks and then leans towards us again.

It was like close to twenty years, close to sales and marketing, always with mobile devices. I joined in around 1991, and I started by selling Nokia phones in Africa,” he says. “And I remember my first working day. I actually did not know what exactly my job was, so I asked my boss at that time. And he was like, “Welcome and follow me.” And I was like “Where are we going?” And he says “To your customers.” And I said, “Okay, so which part of the world is my customer?” And he says “they are from Africa and you are now export manager for Africa.” And I said “Ok, that sounds great. Which part of Africa?” And he said “The whole Africa!”

He bursts out laughing at the memory. And continues: “So if you imagine that more than twenty years ago, it was enough that Nokia had one person for the entire continent.” He sees our eyes widen in disbelief and holds up a single finger: “Yes, one person for Africa. And I was doing the sales, and I was doing the marketing, I have to build up the care operations, I had to take care of the entire continent.

Of course, today it is a little different. But back then, when we managed to sell a hundred phones to somebody, it was always a reason to celebrate. (Bursts out laughing) Now, of course, you add a couple of zeroes. That’s where I started.

He pauses and then adds: “And I think my modest contribution also helped to build the brand in the past.

It definitely did. I remember seeing him at a Nokia smartphone launch almost a decade ago. They had a name for him them: the Lord of Messaging. We remind him of it, and the reaction is another burst of laughter. Albeit with just a hint of a blush.

Joining Nokia: “The School of Life”

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But why did he choose to join Nokia, we ask. Pekka Rantala pauses and utters a pensive “wow.” Unlike for most people, “wow” is not an exclamation of surprise or joy for him, but more an acknowledgment of something that is important or impressive. He ponders the query, and then replies:

A straight and honest answer is that I was quite a young student, and somehow, I chose…” he searches for the exact word and then reframes the sentence. “It was very clear to me that I want to do something that had a very strong international aspect. Because I am from Finland, a very small country in the northern part of Europe, with a population of 5 or 5.5 million. And we speak our own language. When I was very young, I noticed that when I left the country, nobody could understand me when I was speaking Finnish. Because Finnish is the language that is only taught by Finns in Finland.

So I quickly learned the importance of other languages. And Finns, we usually speak many languages. I always found it fascinating to get to know other cultures. And other people. And trying to understand them in their own language. That decided for me that when it was time for me to seek a job, it had to be something with international business. Either sales or marketing. And then I bombarded Finnish companies (twinkling grin). Nokia was one of them.

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Of course, he did not specifically target Nokia. After all, cellphones were not a big business at that time.

There were many many other companies,” he recalls. “Finland is very well known for its forest industry – paper, pulp. So I was bombarding these companies.” Nokia did get a lot of messages from him though. “I must have also sent Nokia about twenty applications to different people I didn’t know,” he confesses, with a smile. “And some of the companies responded with a “no, thank you” and some said “why don’t we meet” and one of the companies was Nokia. It was early times of cellular phones. And they might have thought that let us give this young man a chance. And they offered me this job to go to Africa and start to sell phones there.

He pauses and adds:

I was so grateful for the opportunity. And for any other opportunity that the company offered to me during those twenty years. Fantastic school. School of life in a way.

Remembering the N-Gage and the N Series…and Rovio

His tenure at Nokia was marked by the brand rising to numero uno status in smartphones. Rantala remembers a few of the projects fondly to this day, most notably the N-Gage gaming phone and the iconic N series.

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I remember that when we created the N-Gage, you know, I popped in and out of sales and marketing in my career at Nokia, but Nokia N-Gage, at the time I was in marketing,” he recalls. “I was running marketing at that time, and I was given the task to create a marketing take on this mobile gaming tailored device. Then we created the Nokia N-Gage sub-brand, and that was quite exciting. It was the early days of mobile gaming, and later as you know, I also joined the mobile gaming world before I joined HMD (referring to Rovio).

And right after that I got the chance to create the Nokia N Series, and that was also very exciting because then we were talking about devices that were really for the people who wanted to be first with the latest. And it took us a long time to figure out how do we do it but then we concluded that let us call it Nokia N series, let us take a different take and perspective.

The reference to Rovio leads us to ask him about the company that made Angry Birds famous, and which he joined after leaving Nokia in 2011.

Fantastic brand. Fantastic company. Great experience,” is Rantala’s immediate response. “I am a lucky guy. I am not saying that I have been spoilt, but I have really had the pleasure to work with great brands. And go through some great challenges and experiences. Rovio and Angry Birds as a phenomenon was a fantastic thing. And I had the pleasure also to contribute to perhaps the next phase of that overall phenomenon.

But then he came back to Nokia, under the banner of HMD. And that brings us to the present.

“We don’t feel we did go back somewhere”

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He was doing well at Rovio by all accounts. And had already had a very successful tenure at Nokia. What then tempted him to return to the brand where he had first earned fame? Rantala thinks for a while and then starts speaking, “Well, first of all, it is like that…” he pauses, looking for the right words. And starts again, “We don’t somehow feel…” He again stops and thinks.

And then he finally puts his thoughts together: “At HMD, 2/3rds of us have some Nokia background, 1/3 have no Nokia background, which we think is the right blend of old and new. But we don’t feel that we did go back somewhere. This is totally like a new journey. And that fascinated me and also my colleagues. We really believe in this journey. I also feel that the consumers deserve to see the Nokia brand again but in a fresh and modern way. It has given us a lot of energy and reason to believe, seeing all the signals coming from social media or having announcements in all parts of the world, listening to trade customers. There is so much excitement about the fact that Nokia is again available for consumers. That, I think, is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

His voice takes on a new intensity as he adds: “I think that every person on this earth would deserve a situation, a moment of working for something which really means something for them. You know, it is important for them that their work has a purpose. And I feel I am a lucky guy. I think that my work has a purpose. So it is like a nice combination of taking it as work and at the same time, as a passion.

Nokia then…and now: “A completely new journey”

He, however, came back to a Nokia that had been out of the smartphone market for a while. How different was it from the company he had first joined?

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There’s another gentle, thoughtful “wow” from Pekka Rantala before he starts his reply: “I have to say that this, first of all, feels like a completely new journey. So I have been on board for more than a year and a half, and there has never been a moment when I could have felt that I have been here before, I have seen this before, I know exactly how to do this. You know, so many things have changed. Of course, you look at the consumer behavior; you look how technology has evolved, you look at how the integration of various things is now offering for consumers totally new experiences. You look at the ARs and VRs and IoTs… so overall, to me personally of course, what is very important is that it is not boring at all. It is a very exciting journey that I have been so far involved in.

And yet at the same time, we are talking about bringing back one of the most admired, loved and greatest consumer brands of all times. And we are talking about a brand that has more than 150 years history. Remember that it wasn’t created in the 1980s or the 1990s but 1865. So it is a very very long time. There is an authentic story, and I think we have the big responsibility and privilege to continue evolving the story in the mobile phone category. What I am saying is that of course there is lots of equity, lots of continuation, but at the same time, we need to find a fresh and modern take: how do we articulate connecting people and Nokia to smartphone and feature phone users of the world in today’s situation? There are many things which are so different and yet there are certain things that we need to make sure that we keep the consistency and continuation of the story. We just write the next chapter of the story, if you like.

He smiles at us and delivers the perfect simile for Nokia’s current approach: “It’s like when you are driving your car. It is very important that you are looking forward, but at the same time, you need to have a mirror to know where you are coming from.

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But even with all the history, all the brand equity, all the passion, and the experience, is it easier being at Nokia now than it was in the past? “I don’t know,” Rantala confesses, with a shake of the head. “I don’t feel it is ever easy,” he adds, stretching every syllable in the word “easy.” “At least personally, I always enjoy situations that are complex and challenging, and then getting together with your colleagues and customers and trying to figure out what’s the best solution. I think that gives you great satisfaction, so I don’t think that I have never been in very easy situations, but yes, I have been in very exciting situations and very fascinating situations.

From Symbian to “pure, secure, up to date Android”

Perhaps the biggest change in the new Nokia has been the arrival of Android. In the past, Nokia had for a long time depended on its own operating system, called Symbian, and then on Windows Phone. In its comeback, Nokia has opted to not just go with Android, but also to stick with a version that it calls pure, secure and up to date. What was the rationale behind this?

Our whole business model, we call it partnership now,” says Rantala, and then elaborates. “We think we are partnering with the best of the best, so we are partnering with Google when it comes to services, Android when it comes to operating systems, Nokia when it comes to technology, innovation and brand, and Foxconn when it also comes to technology, engineering, and manufacturing. Another partner is an old friend of ours, Zeiss, our imaging partner, to get more imaging innovation for consumers. We are talking about composition of a bunch of new partnerships. It has definitely taken us a lot of effort and time to get to know these partners because only then can you work very closely with them. And we are so grateful to Google, to Foxconn, to Nokia that from the very beginning there has been great intention from their side. And I can truly say that we are in very deep and warm partnerships with all of them. And we really believe in strong, long-term, lasting and really trusting partnerships.

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But what of Android? Rantala is quick to answer:

Android is really at the core of it. Ten years ago, when Android came, it was so obvious and evident and needed that those people who decided to go for Android had to create their own skin (UI, interface) and version of Android because Android was not ready. Ten years later, if you look at the Android OS Experience, you look at the excellence in Google services. So we concluded that there was no point anymore to create anything on top of this. This experience is great in terms of both services and operating systems so let us endorse and celebrate them as Google intended to. Of course, it is a big change from the past, but we think this is the right choice for the consumers. And at the same time we were able to create our own special and unique take on Android because when we are not creating any software on top of Android, it is possible for us to contribute, or commit to very frequent security updates and very frequent OS updates. It is easier for us. And that also brings us very close to Google because we don’t have any conflict with them when it comes to strategy.

Rantala also believes that the younger audiences appreciated uncluttered and updated Android, which is why the brand has gone with the pure, secure, up-to-date line.

Our promise on pure, secure and up to date Android has been received very well especially by the young people. Because it seems the young people that are the part of the consumer universe out there seem to be a bit annoyed by the amount of preloaded stuff that they get on their devices, and by the lack of frequent security updates” he explains. “Android is by far the leading operating system, but most of the people out there who are having an Android in their pocket, they have a very old software version on it. They are not enjoying the latest and best Android experience. So we just thought: let us keep it simple. Let us make a promise that we can keep and give the consumers something that they, in our opinion, need.

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Being on Android and yet being different

But what of the competition? In the past, only a handful of companies used Symbian (Sony and Samsung most notably), so competition in the UI department was limited. Even when Nokia was under Microsoft and using Windows Phone, there were not too many other brands using that platform. But Android is used by just about every smartphone company aside from that one in Cupertino. Even the stock Android experience is being offered by a number of players, including Motorola, Lenovo, BlackBerry and even Xiaomi (in its Android One series). We ask Rantalla how Nokia can be different in such a competitive market?

Well, first of all, we need to be very committed and consistent and true to our promises,” he says. “When the whole Nokia brand was created, one of the ideas was to stay very consistent over time, so I am sure we will have the patience to stay with our commitments. I cannot comment on the other players in the market, but when you combine this unique take on Android with one of the greatest consumer brands of all time and what that brand stands for, which is things like being trusted, quality, reliability, the Nokia design which is always very distinctive and differentiating, and also in terms of innovation and imaging, the perception of the brand is already there.

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Almost as if he realizes the importance of what he is saying, he pauses and then continues in a quieter tone:

Of course, we now need to deliver. And exceed expectations. But we think that combining our unique take on Android with our great brand and our commitment to build long-lasting quality products so that they look and feel like Nokia products…I feel that is a powerful combination. Then, of course, we are a young startup, so we think that we are very agile. Of course, we need to show that every day in our work so that we not only just talk about it, but we are a different player from any of those big conglomerates out there. We have coverage over the world but are really like a small startup player.

The going so far has been good, according to him. “I think that what we hear from our trade customers is that “you guys, you feel a bit different from the others. And it shows that you are excited. And you enjoy what you are doing.“And that we take as a very big compliment,” he says, with a smile.

India: “a very special relationship”

Of course, all the talk of retail partners makes us bring Pekka Rantala to the matter of the Indian market and where India stands in Nokia’s picture. He does not even pause for a second as he says:

India has always been one of the heartlands of Nokia. I have been privileged to visit India many times. There has been a very special relationship between Indian consumers and the Nokia brand. Nokia has not become just a trademark but a true brand that means something.

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He now pauses and tries to define what the Nokia brand meant to the Indian consumer. “It has always had something like a purpose and somehow the way we used to define the Nokia brand in the 1990s,” he says. “The kind of attributes of the brand and perhaps our passion for life, positivism, and use of the spectrum of colors, I think that it was a nice correlation between the Nokia brand and India. And the Indian consumers.

Has the brand moving to HMD changed perceptions? Pekka Rantala does not think so. “There is a special relationship between India and Nokia brand. And I would also say with HMD now,” he insists. “As you know, we are a young startup in Finland. But we want to start business everywhere in the world which we have now managed to do, in almost every corner of the world – we are selling in more than a hundred markets. But internally, our colleagues are always going “How are we doing in India? What is the latest from India?” Somehow it is built-in. Of course, all markets are important. We have our home market, Finland, where we come from. And then we have certain markets like India, you know, which is a bit more important than the share of the business that we do in the country.

Betting on feature phones!

We ask him what are the company’s plans for the special market that is India? His answer is almost instantaneous:

To grow,” he says, tapping the table to stress his point. “To definitely grow constantly and become one of the leading players in this market.

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Interestingly, Rantala feels that feature phones, as much as smartphones, have an important role to play in the Indian market.

We see a great opportunity to further evolve the feature phone segment, basic phones,” he points out. “So clearly it is a volume game, but at the same time, I think we have started to be the value leader worldwide in feature phones. And even if we say that from many aspects the future is in smartphones, at the same time we see a huge opportunity to serve consumers around the world with new innovative feature phones. So as you have seen, we have brought new feature phones to the market. And they have been welcomed very well by consumers – also and absolutely also in India.

And that I think that has given us the signal that let us continue to develop this part of the business. At the same time, we have the smartphone business, and there too we want to become one of the leading players. My guess is that it will take some more time than in feature phones but I will say that we have, on one hand, patience, and at the same time we are a bit impatient. We know it will take time, but for us, the most important thing is that we recognize that it is constant growth!

This approach would make Nokia one of the few players in the country to be trying its hand in the feature phone segment as well as all price points of the smartphone segment. The feature phone segment is generally populated by smaller players who have relatively limited smartphone ambitions. Rantala, however, feels that the two-pronged strategy will work for Nokia in India,

I think they both will be important. Let me put it this way: I think we will be faster in the feature phone area. One of the reasons is that that is one of the businesses in which we continued and inherited. When we started our journey, we inherited a feature phone business, so we have been building on that. Whereas in smartphones, we have been building from scratch,” he explains.

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He goes on to elaborate the smartphone challenge. “When we started in December 2016, we had zero smartphone sales in the world and today we have a situation where we announced a roster of smartphones in Barcelona 2017 and 2018,” he says. “We started to ship in summertime in 2017. And we have announced many other devices, and we have also tied up with Google for Android One. We are expanding the portfolio, but overall, it is still early days for us in smartphones. Remember, we are a new company, but we managed to bring 11 phones to the market in our first eleven months, and we are continuing to bring new devices. So we have had a good start, but at the same time, we feel so humble and modest. It is going to require a lot of hard work and passion and commitment to keep this going.

Indeed, the man has no illusions of the enormity of the task ahead in the coming days.

I think that we are at the early stage of our journey,” he insists. “We are a startup. There are many years in front of us, definitely. We want to expand overall our presence and our portfolio. We definitely want to keep our promises to the consumers when it comes to delivering the core of the Nokia offering. And I think we have managed to start well, but it is very early days for us. The most important thing for us is that we can keep up the high quality of the products and we can keep on growing.

He thinks for a while and repeats: “We want to be one of the leading players in feature phones and smartphones.” He pauses, and then smiles and adds: “And in a humble way, we think we are going in the right direction.

Running, taking pictures and moving stones…literally

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It has been a very busy time for HMD Nokia. But what does Pekka Rantala do when he does get some time away from work? “Well, the last year and a half has been very much concentrated and focused on work. It was very clear from the very beginning that the early months would be very special times. I am not just talking about myself; I am talking about all my colleagues at HMD. We were all very very committed and focused on this early phase,” Rantala concedes. “But of course, all of us have to have other things to do in life. Like balance. Balance, I think, is the answer to almost everything in this life. And yes, I have my hobbies but perhaps the thing that I have been able to keep up even today – even in the past eighteen months – has been sports and running. I love running.

Of course, he would, coming from the land of the Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi – Finland has an amazing running tradition. Rantala, in particular, remembers Lasse Viren, who famously fell down during a race but got up to win an Olympic gold medal.

I don’t have red running shoes, actually,” he clarifies before we can even ask. “They are in different colors. But anyway I run. Tomorrow morning I will go and run. It is one of my passions. And it also helps me get adjusted to timezones. When in the morning you go for a run, no matter where you were the day before, you can feel the adrenaline and get going in the time zone that you are in.

He has been known to be a drummer too. “Where did you find that out from?” He asks, bursting out laughing. “But you are right. There will be a time again when I will try to learn a little drumming. I am at a VERY amateur level in drumming. But I enjoy it; I think it is a nice way to release some energy somehow. And try to learn something new.

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Of course, it follows that we ask him about the music he likes. “Everything goes,” he says, expansively. “I was born in the sixties, so there are certain bands in the seventies and eighties that are important for me, The Eagles and that sort of stuff. By the way, drumming Eagles is not very difficult,” he adds with a laugh. “I try to understand what is the latest music that the millennials are listening to. I think the world of music is so fascinating. It seems that year after year it is possible to create totally new types of music.

And of course, there is the little matter of photography. “Photography is very important for me,” says Rantala. “And that of course, I can do a little bit when I am traveling. But of course when I have time I try to go outdoors and try to do some nature photography and birds. That is my passion but recently, the time has been limited.” He also tries to catch up on reading. “Not just books, but magazines, to find out what is happening in the world,” he says. He also likes to see “how people are living in different countries,” whenever he gets time.

And when he is in Finland, there is one more thing that he does. Some might find it odd. And yet it reflects the man.

I have a country place in Finland. Now Finland has a very small population (about 5 million or so), so we usually have the possibility of having a second home,” he explains. “So it’s a quiet place in the middle of nature. Lots of stones everywhere.

He pauses and continues. “So as my hobby, I carry these stones and try to build walls out of these stones. I think that is a never-ending hobby. There are hundreds of stones to be carried from one place to another. But at least there I will be able to do something that will last through generations.

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Why do you go away? So that you can come back

Very interesting questions. It was so good talking to you,” he says as we take our leave. Of course, we know we will see him again. Inevitably whenever there is a Nokia phone to be launched, he is more than likely to be on stage.

There will be a flash of red as he climbs into the limelight, those shoes a blur (he likes to move fast, almost as if he cannot wait to get there). As he starts speaking, his eyes will twinkl, and the voice will have a hint of a smile and the tone will be warm.

Not just launching a product. But feeling it. And trying to transmit that feeling to his audience.

If you happen to be in that audience, do yourself a favor. Put down your phones and forget about live Tweeting for a while. Just absorb the experience.

Because Nokia is on stage. And so is Pekka Rantala.

He has been there. He has done that. And now he is doing it again. And yet, as he himself confesses, it feels different.

As Terry Pratchett so beautifully put it:

Why do you go away?
So that you can come back.
So that you can see the place you came from
with new eyes and extra colors.
And the people there see you differently, too.
Coming back to where you started is not the same
as never leaving…

Twenty-seven years after he first joined Nokia.
Two years after he resumed his association with the brand.
Pekka Rantala would so understand that feeling.

(Akriti Rana contributed to this article)