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Kazam's James Atkins: 'Consumers don't want smartphone gimmicks'

Kazam is a tiny British company taking on the might of Samsung and HTC. Chief Marketing Officer James Atkins tells us what it's like to lead an insurgency.

James Atkins, chief marketing officer of Kazam. Kazam

BARCELONA, Spain -- In the smallest meeting room at Mobile World Congress -- hidden up some stairs behind the Ericsson stand -- James Atkins is planning a scrappy insurgency against the "oil tankers" of the smartphone business. It's his first MWC as Chief Marketing Officer of Kazam, the London-based phone maker he started with fellow HTC alumnus Michael Coombes in May 2013.

If Samsung and HTC are the Captain Phillipses of the smartphone business, Kazam is Barkhad Abdi. With just 65 employees, Kazam is this week launching across Europe its second generation of phones in less than a year -- eight smartphones running unskinned Android, and four feature phones.

The flagship Kazam Tornado 2 is one of the first on the market to use an octa-core chip, but apart from that they're nothing out of the ordinary, just well-priced phones with plain Android.

Where Kazam stands out from the crowd is in its customer service -- a commitment to repair a cracked screen within the first year, and Kazam Rescue, a support system where a call centre person can remotely access your phone to remove malware, reset settings, and so on.

"Everybody's trying to outdo each other on tech spec, which is good from an innovation point of view, but you get to a point of diminishing returns with specifications. You can only have so many megapixels -- when is enough enough?" he asks rhetorically. "Innovation in the smartphone market is starting to slow down. There has to be something more."

It's classic David tactics -- finding the chinks in Goliath's armour.

"There is a golden moment for a company like Kazam to blossom within the smartphone industry. The reason why is I think there is too much competition at the top end, with a pixel and processor war," Atkins says. "None of the innovations are bad, but some of the innovations you have to question really how useful is that? Are you just creating stuff to say you're different, rather than asking if there's a genuine customer need for that?

"With this gimmicky innovation we're saying consumers generally don't want that. They might use it once but they'll never use it again."

Innovation, he says, doesn't necessarily mean bullet points on the back of the box.

"For us it's about focusing on the core technology needed to deliver you a good experience -- and then looking at these other areas of innovation, which to start with happens to be screen replacement and Kazam rescue. I don't necessarily want us to be known as the customer service brand, it's just that we want to innovate across the whole of the supply chain and it just so happened we started with this because we could see a real opportunity from day one.

"We're already innovating in other areas, in packaging and logistics...meaning we can reduce our transportation costs, which means another saving for the consumer, and a better solution for the environment. I'd rather be known as the company that's continually innovating in areas that are often overlooked and try and really shake things up, do it differently."

You can't deny he's ambitious either. "We can compete with Samsung," he declares. "Yes we're small now, but why not target Samsung? They make smartphones, we make smartphones."

When I call Kazam a scrappy insurgent, he's quick to agree. "Yeah, pretty much. That's true. We are. We're not trying to be underhand, or in-and-out, but we are taking advantage. Absolutely, we have to exploit our size to stand out. For us it's about how to continually get in front of people -- whether it's price or the first thing to market. We'll only stay in front by constantly moving the proposition."

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The risk, of course, is that punters won't trust Kazam to deliver a trustworthy, working product.

"There are a lot of companies in China that make smartphones. There are a lot of companies that make really bad smartphones. I think one of the dangers of when you're going in and spec-ing a product and getting people to make it, is there's not enough testing in place. [In Kazam] it's rigorous and robust and it's why our product team is the biggest part of our country.

"As we get bigger, our sales and marketing will grow, but you can't launch without a product team, whether you're selling a million phones or a thousand phones. It's a huge range and every single device is put through its paces in [each] country -- it's a huge commitment."

Currently only available online in the UK, Kazam phones enjoy wider distribution in mainland Europe. It'll be fascinating to see if its philosophy gains any traction -- it would be a huge benefit if all manufacturers offered screen protection, for example. "We're just trying to take a fresh look at the market," Atkins says, "and say, 'Is there a better way to do things that will ultimately benefit the consumer?'"

Now playing: Watch this: Kazam takes on Samsung with octa-core Tornado 2 5.0