One sits far atop the Android smartphone heap while the other has recently stepped up its efforts to compete more aggressively by acquiring the stake of its decade-long joint venture partner. But at the recent IFA event, electronics giants Samsung and Sony both acknowledged the importance of their smartphone sub-brands by stretching them into new product categories. For Sony, its Xperia sub-brand hopped across to its tablet while Samsung brought the Galaxy brand to a connected camera. How these companies have stretched these brands reflects their relative position both in terms of where they've moved from and where they've moved to.
For Sony, the move of Xperia to another product category represents somewhat of a full circle (as does the return of the Sony brand to handsets itself). Part of the early playbook for Sony Ericsson was to bring established Sony Electronics brands -- notably Cyber-Shot and Walkman -- to phones focused on imaging and music in the heyday of the feature phone, which the joint venture clung to for too long. Xperia, in contrast, was the company's first "native" sub-brand meant to evoke "experience", of course. And while many in the line have been well-received, they never translated into a strong global market share for Sony Ericsson.
Alas, the same has been true for Sony's first tablets, the Tablet S and Tablet P. While the Tablet P's dual-screen design created a host of issues, the Tablet S' sloped "folded magazine" profile was differentiated and comfortable and the tablet itself was responsive, but that didn't translate into much headway, even in a product class where Android products have struggled overall. There's not a lot of "magic" in the Xperia brand that Sony can hope will rub off on its tablets. In this case, it's more about tying together two product categories that clearly have many similarities and, at least for Android, can run the same apps.
For Samsung, the Galaxy brand has been a juggernaut that the company has grown more dedicated to featuring as it did when it rolled out its mainstream flagship Galaxy S II, and one that it has used with its Android tablets from their inception. But while Sony may be playing catch-up to Samsung on smartphones, televisions and even tablets from at least from the Tablet S' sales perspective, Sony has been firing on all cylinders in the digital imaging space, pumping out well-received products in the SLR category, NEX mirrorless line and high-end compacts such as the recently released RX100 with its large sensor size and fast f/1.8 lens. Samsung's cameras, while boasting competitive specs and some innovative features, haven't seemed to win over the market in terms of image quality.
And so, Samsung is seeking to share the halo of the Galaxy smartphone brand with an Android-running, cellular-connected camera. Unlike tablets, which are inherently connected devices, it's unclear whether Galaxy cameras will be applied to just some of Samsung's imaging devices or whether it will, over time, grow to encompass the entire line. But, clearly, Samsung is sending a message that it believes camera connectedness (and potentially usage and distribution) will be more like that of smartphones moving forward.
Sony's expansion of the Xperia brand to tablets is a low-risk bet, but one that seems to have relatively low reward potential as well. Samsung's also seems like a relatively low-risk move in that stretching the Galaxy brand to cameras will likely do little to dilute whatever value it may have in smartphones. Samsung hasn't been able to use connectivity to translate into a strong shift forward in its camera position, but that's clearly one of the tactics it's continuing to expand.
Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is principal analyst at Reticle Research, an advisory firm focused on consumer technology. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.