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Moto Z, this is your mission: Make Motorola relevant again

Lenovo executives are embracing the classic name again, while looking for more ways to put their modular phone in front of you.

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Moto Mods give your Moto Z new capabilities. They also mean not having to buy a whole new phone to take advantage of new technology or features like wireless charging.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Motorola identity crisis is over.

Last year was a confusing time for the business. First, there was the plan to phase out the Motorola name in favor of "Moto by Lenovo," its Chinese parent. Then there was the question of how the Lenovo brand would co-exist with Moto.

With a new leadership team, things have changed. The business will no longer shy away from using the Motorola name, putting the iconic "bat wing" icon front and center. The original Motorola, after all, invented the cellphone, and Lenovo hopes to tap into that legacy.

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"In 2016, we just finished transforming ourselves," Motorola Chairman and President Aymar de Lencquesaing said in an interview on Sunday. "We have clarity on how we present ourselves."

He plans to reinvigorate the staid brand with its most forward-looking product: the Moto Z, a phone that embraces a modular concept with swappable Moto Mods that let users add capabilities like a projector or extra battery. He vowed to expand distribution, meaning the Moto Z will come to more carriers in the US.

De Lencquesaing is not alone in his reinvention mission: Lenovo's one of several companies attempting to pump life into a once-household name. The Mobile World Congress trade show this week has served as the staging ground for new Nokia and BlackBerry phones, and the conference here in Barcelona has cruising along with an underlying theme of what's-old-is-new-and-hot-again.

"Motorola is an iconic brand that symbolized quality and innovation," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst for Lopez Research. "It was a bad idea to ditch the name in the first place."

Lenovo will need all the help it can get. The company has fallen out of the top five phone makers, overtaken by other Chinese companies such as Huawei and Oppo, according to Gartner.

Moto everywhere

Lenovo will eventually migrate to the Motorola brand in all regions, but de Lencquesaing said the timing would depend on the market. In Brazil, for instance, Motorola is already a strong brand. In Russia, it's not, and Lenovo has a strong position.

But the best example of where Lenovo is going is in its home market of China. Lenovo, which sells phones under its own name and a sub-brand called Zuk, plans to reintroduce Motorola into China and eventually phase out the other names.

He stressed that it would be a gradual shift.

"Everything is a journey," he said. "You don't flip the switch and tell customers overnight."

More Moto Z

The pattern for phone sales cycles is predictable. Sales spike after a launch and then gradually decline as consumers move on to the next thing.

But after the Moto Z launched, sales actually picked up over time, something de Lencquesaing attributed to the interest in the Moto Mod accessories. He said that roughly every other customer who has bought a phone also purchased a Moto Mod.

Motorola on Sunday unveiled new Moto Mods, including a new power pack with an extended battery, one that allows for wireless charging, and a gamepad for mobile gaming. Amazon is building a Moto Mod that will house Alexa, its voice-activated computer assistant.

"Moto Mods have exceeded our expectations," de Lencquesaing said.

Still, the modular concept alone isn't going to win Motorola new customers. Just ask LG, which went modular with its G5 to an underwhelming reception.

"The Mod system is definitely a differentiator, but to reach a larger customer base, Mods cannot be the primary reason to buy," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis.

Being able to buy the phone helps. De Lencquesaing vowed to expand distribution, which means its flagship phone won't just be sold at Verizon. He also promised to a lot louder.

"We're spending a fair bit of money branding ourselves," he said. When asked how much, he replied, "More than enough."

No love for smartwatches

Motorola was among the first to embrace Google's Android Wear software for smartwatches. While the Moto 360 was a top seller among smartwatches, the numbers weren't enough to justify the business. That's why Motorola scrapped plans for a future watch.

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The Moto 360 watch didn't sell well enough to warrant another.

Motorola

"I don't want to be in the business doing a product for the sake of doing a product because we need to do a follow-up," he said.

Motorola has pulled back at a time when LG and Huawei are both pushing forward with watches running on Google's upgraded Android Wear 2 software.

De Lencquesaing said there were too few practical uses for smartwatches, although he said Motorola does commit a small set of engineers working on a project. "We'll continue to invest and research, but at this point we're nor ready for a new product," he said.

What's my name?

Much of the task of bringing Motorola back will fall to Jan Huckfeldt, a longtime Procter & Gamble executive who joined in May as chief marketing officer.

"It was foolish to throw it overboard," he said about the Motorola name an interview on Sunday.

His ultimate goal is to use the DNA of the original brand and make Motorola a premium name again.

In the US, he hopes the expanded distribution and marketing will do the trick.

"Give us 12 months, and everyone in the US will know the new Motorola," Huckfeldt said.

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