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How the LG G2 looked to 'Gangnam Style' for inspiration

One of the creators of the G2 tells CNET how the smartphone maker looked to the example of pop star Psy for its flagship smartphone.

The LG G2 and its back-button controls. Sarah Tew/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain -- Ramchan Woo is a big fan of Korean pop superstar Psy.

Ramchan Woo, head of LG's mobile platform planning division. LG

OK, with nearly 2 billion views on YouTube, who didn't at one time bob to the rhythm of the mega-viral "Gangnam Style" music video? But Woo, who is the head of LG's mobile platform planning division, did more than just sing and dance along to Psy's infectiously catchy beat, he used the artist and his video as inspiration for the Korean company's flagship G2 smartphone.

"He was different," Woo said as he sat next to me during a dinner with executives, reporters, and bloggers hosted by LG in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, which offered a brief respite from the craziness of the Mobile World Congress trade show last month.

While no Psy, Woo clearly stands out from the typical Korean tech executive. Every other LG official sitting around the table that evening sported the usual corporate uniform: a dark suit and white button-down shirt. Woo, meanwhile opted instead for a blue Chicago Cubs T-shirt (purchased by his wife; he actually isn't a big fan of baseball), wool green top, and jeans. Topping off the offbeat look was a pair of designer horn-rim eyeglasses -- retro style, of course.

Heck, next to him, even I felt overdressed.

Woo spoke softly, but clearly, his English shockingly good for someone who spends most of his time conversing in Korean (he went to college in the US and lived there when he worked at Texas Instruments). He's also surprisingly frank, almost too honest for his own good. How many senior executives would openly admit to their admiration of a pop star, let alone give that star credit for a key product?

Just as Psy eschewed the polished, almost machine-like good looks of the typical Korean pop star, and "Gangnam Style" skewered the standard music video tropes, Woo embraced a go-against-the-grain philosophy that helped drive the ultimate direction of the development of the G2.

In a world where every new smartphone amounts to a slightly altered take on a similar-looking rectangle with glass, standing out with a sincerely different product is more critical than ever. And regardless of the quality of the product, LG's G2 was different. It was the first to introduce the love-it-or-hate-it back button controls, and managed to pack in a bigger screen with a slimmer bezel, one of the first oversized phones to push that feature.

For LG, it was the first "hero" phone that found its way to multiple carriers -- including all of the national US providers. Enough people loved -- or at least tolerated -- the back controls to buy that phone, as the G2 helped propel LG to ship a record 13.2 million smartphones in the fourth quarter, a 52 percent increase from a year ago. It also set the trend for later devices: the back button appeared again on the curvy G Flex and the follow-up G Pro 2, and will likely show up again in the successor G flagship.

Check out: Inside G Flex: LG's long, winding road to setting the curve

The G2 was by no means a smash hit on par with the Galaxy S4 or iPhone 5S, and its brand awareness when it comes to phones still needs a lot of work. But G2 sales did help keep LG in the No. 3 position in the ruthlessly competitive US market during the fourth quarter, according to ComScore.

It was a phone that, if LG had listened to the early feedback, probably wouldn't have existed.

"It was really bad"
It was the summer of 2012 when Woo began listening to "Gangnam Style" as he sketched out the specifications and requirements for what would become the G2. Woo, who started in 2006, had previously been in charge of its mass-market smartphones, but joked that he was promoted because he kept adding more high-end features into his smartphone concepts.

Around that time, LG's R&D department had come up with multiple mock-ups of proposed devices, and it fell to Woo to decide which to use.

After perusing the different prototypes, he stopped at the one model that featured the power and volume controls on the back.

Woo was drawn to the device. Out of all of the different prototypes, it was the only one that was significantly different. Another side benefit: That particular designed featured the thinnest possible bezel, allowing the company to pack in a larger display.

After months of work, LG decided to hold focus group tests for the device early last year, particularly to gauge the reaction to the back button. The early response wasn't great.

The back button proved controversial early on. Sarah Tew/CNET

"It was really bad," he said, with a slight chuckle.

I was surprised by the revelation. Having covered the industry for a while, I know how much sway those focus groups tend to have. And feedback that negative that early on would have surely killed off the idea at other handset vendors. When I asked him about his surprising decision to ignore the results, he offered up a simple response.

"That's what I do."

In a follow-up email response, Woo added that he tried to understand the early skepticism over the rear buttons. Initially, people saw the mock-up as different for the sake of being different. They also didn't have a chance to really use the phone, instead only answering hypothetical questions about having the controls in the rear. Woo knew he needed something else.

Birth of KnockOn
That something turned out to be an alternative way to wake up the phone.

One of the members of his team brought up the idea of tapping the screen. Woo saw an opportunity and seized it: The G2 would have a feature LG called KnockOn.

It's actually a brilliantly simple and intuitive idea for the phone. You tap the screen twice to wake it up, and tap it twice again to put it back to sleep.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A month before the launch of the G2 in August, LG ran another focus group with both the back-button controls and KnockOn, and gave consumers an actual device to play with.

"That time, the result was pretty positive," Woo said.

Woo knew he wanted the back button to stand out more, so that other people would know it was an LG phone. So he added a glowing power button in the center that would subtly change colors if you were on the phone, so there was no mistaking what you device you were using when you held it up to your ear.

Still, it continues to have its share of critics.

"LG's rear button placement is different, but not better," said Strategy Analytics' Avi Greengart.

But KnockOn was successful enough that it will continue to be a hallmark feature in LG's higher-end devices. With the G Pro 2, LG introduced Knock Code, which lets people set up a specific tapping sequence on the screen to unlock the phone.

Check out: How to set up Knock Code on the LG G Pro 2

Woo, who professed his admiration for Apple, and said his style of dress was based partly on his idea of what an Apple executive would wear, said he considered mimicking Apple's decision to put a fingerprint sensor on its phone, something that Samsung had just introduced during its massive Galaxy S5 launch the evening before. But he argued that Knock Code was not only similarly effective, but could eventually filter down to mid-tier and lower-end devices where a pricey fingerprint sensor wasn't an option.

Interestingly, LG said it owns the rights to the terms "KnockOn", as well as "KnockOff." Understandably, the company hasn't really used the latter term too often.

Optimus no more
With the G2, LG shook up the naming convention for its flagship smartphone. The prior marquee phone, the Optimus G, still utilized the Optimus family name that the company had spent years establishing, starting with the entry-level Optimus One back in late 2010.

I expressed my concerns to LG back then about the decision to use the name. Apparently, LG was not aware of a certain Transformer that shared a similar sounding moniker.

LG still needs a lot of work on its brand, especially when stacked up against Apple and Samsung. Roger Cheng/CNET

Beyond that minor coincidence, LG's family of Optimus phones were primarily made up of mass-market phones. As such, LG felt the brand was too deeply associated with affordability.

"The Optimus name didn't have a premium enough feel," said an LG representative.

About six months before the launch of the G2, LG's marketing team decided that the phone represented a big enough step-up from the Optimus G to warrant a name change. It was a chance to establish a new identity that could challenge the iPhone, Galaxy S, and HTC One franchises.

While LG succeeded in created a unified brand, the G2 still hasn't resonated with consumers relative to the other big players.

A Kantar survey found that the primary reason consumers bought an LG phone remained cost, an indication that the company has yet to shake that bargain brand reputation.

"Despite the fact that the G2 has clearly helped sales and helped LG as a vendor seen more as a smartphone player, it has not helped the LG brand to be perceived as cutting edge or a market leader brand," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar.

While Psy was an inspiration for Woo and the development of the G2, he never actually became a pitchman for the phone. The closest the company got was a campaign with "Little Psy," the child dancer who appears at the beginning of the music video. Alas, in Psy's place was the Canadian band "The Moffatts."

The G2, just like the successor G Flex and G Pro 2, are small steps toward something bigger. At least, that's what LG is hoping for.

But for all the effort on creating a new brand, LG never really explained what the G really stood for. Perhaps in Woo's mind, the G in G2 stands for Gangnam Style.