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Marketing Nokia The Failure Awards

The Failure Awards for defunct branding | #3 Nokia N-Gage


By Andrew Eborn | president

August 29, 2017 | 7 min read

In this weekly series, Andrew Eborn shines a light on the products and services, brand extensions and campaigns that – for one reason or another – failed to take off and have as a result earned entry into the Octopus TV Failure Awards and a place in The Museum of Failure. Today, it's the turn of the Nokia N-Gage.

So far in our series on nominees for The Octopus TV Failure Awards (TOFA) we have looked at a failed food product, the Colgate Lasagne, and a failed tech product, the Twitter Peek. This week we look at a product that could be a nominee in both the tech and food categories – Nokia’s N-Gage (aka The Taco Phone)

Nokia – at the heart of our connected world

Nokia describes itself as a “global technology leader at the heart of our connected world shaping the future of technology to transform the human experience”.

From its beginning in 1865 as a single paper mill operation, Nokia has “found and nurtured success in several sectors including cable, mobile devices, paper products, rubber boots and tyres (!), and telecommunications infrastructure equipment".

Nokia is indeed now a truly global company employing over 101,000 people, 160 nationalities in more than 100 countries.

In its 2016 annual report, Nokia declared net sales of €26.3bn.

The company claims that the significant targeted R&D investments it makes are a bedrock of its success in innovation. In 2016 Nokia spent €4.9 billion on R&D….


Nokia’s headquarters are in the gloriously named Espoo, Finland.

Not everything Nokia touches turns to gold… in fact this week’s nominee for The Octopus TV Failure Awards – The N-Gage – was indeed Espoo.

Storied capacity

By 1998, Nokia was the world leader in mobile phones, a position it enjoyed for more than a decade.

It proudly claims "few companies have Nokia’s storied capacity for transforming, developing new technologies and adapting to shifts in market conditions."

It was no doubt this “storied capacity” that led to the development of the Nokia N-Gage. (engage – geddit? Got It? Good!)

Around the year 2000 various people carried both a mobile phone and a handheld game console. Nokia had the brilliant idea to combine these two devices into one unit. The N-Gage was launched on 7 October 2003 in an attempt to lure gamers away from portable gaming consoles like the Game Boy Advance (GBA). The N-Gage enabled multiplayer gaming through Bluetooth and the internet and also had MP3 and Real Audio/Video playback.

N-Gage? Hardly!

Commercially it was a disaster.

Based on Arcadia Research figures, a direct comparison of the GBA launch to the N-Gage launch in the US suggested that GBA outsold the significantly more expensive N-Gage by over 100:1 in their respective first weeks on sale.

It was one of the weakest console releases ever.

N-Gage ? It did not!

Why did it fail?

In spite of Gerard Wiener, director and general manager for games at Nokia, claiming "this is a mobile phone that is great for playing games on", one analyst said in fact “it was a mediocre games console and not a very good phone”.

The Taco Phone

The N-Gage was not a failure of ideas – it was a failure of implementation. The device had to be disassembled to change games. Users had to take off the phone's plastic cover and remove the battery compartment as the game slot was next to it.

To use it as a phone, the user had to hold the phone sideways, with its thin edge against their head. This led to the N-Gage being referred to as the “taco phone”.

museum of failure

Unlike other games consoles, the display screen was taller than it was wide - 2.1' 35 x 41 mm with a resolution of 176 X 208, giving an aspect ratio of 11:13. Most portable game screens were 4:3.

The re-designed N-Gage QD introduced in 2004 fixed a number of issues but was still unable to challenge Nintendo.

UK sales-tracking firm ChartTrack dropped the N-Gage from its ELSPA chart in January 2005, pointing out: "The N-Gage chart, though still produced, is of little interest to anyone. Sales of the machine and its software have failed to make any impact on the market at all."

Fudging the figures

The sultans of spin worked overtime with the statistics, masking the real dire straits the N-Gage was in. Initial claims suggested Nokia shifted some 400,000 units worldwide in its first two weeks on sale. Chief executive Jorma Ollila pointed out that "many outlets sold out of the device during the first day of release". The fear of missing out/limited time/limited availability is usually a fantastic driver of sales... but not this time.

Arcadia Research suggested that the N-Gage sold only 5,000 units through US retailers in its first week on sale and in the UK Chart-Track measured less than 800 sales.

So how can there be such varying figures between those claimed by Nokia and those from the analysts? This is no doubt accounted for by the difference in measurement. The independent analysts measured the sell-through of N-Gage units ie those actually sold to consumers by the retailers polled, whereas Nokia was probably measuring shipments.

Lies, damned lies and statistics!

As Mark Twain reminds us, facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.

Being more pliable makes statistics less viable.

In any event, by 2005 it was generally accepted that the actual numbers of units sold was embarrassingly low – about one third of Nokia’s anticipated 6m sales.

The N-Gage was discontinued in November 2005, with Nokia moving its gaming capabilities onto selected Series 60 smartphones.

TOFA welcomes the TACO

The N-Gage was a failure of implementation and as a result – in spite of the initial fudged figures suggesting otherwise – a commercial failure. For these reasons it is this week’s nomination for The Octopus TV Failure Awards.

Send your nominations now

From failed products and services to campaigns and ads we would rather forget, we want to encourage organisations and brands to be better at learning from failures not just ignoring them and pretending they never happened.

Send your nominations with full description and images to

In addition to international recognition and glittering prizes the winners will be featured in The Museum of Failure and receive the much valued TOFA.

You can follow Andrew Eborn on Twitter @AndrewEborn

Marketing Nokia The Failure Awards

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