Can Stephen Elop make Nokia (NYSE: NOK) a force to be reckoned with in North America?

The ex-Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) executive seems to be thinking along the same lines I've explored for some time: If Nokia wants a foot in the American door, it needs close relationships with American service providers.

A change is gonna come
That is simply not the case today. When consumers go looking for a high-end smartphone on these golden shores, they are likely to recoil from Nokia with a severe case of sticker shock -- if they can find a Finnish smartphone at all.

For example, the only smartphone powered by Nokia's Symbian software from AT&T (NYSE: T) today is the Sony Ericsson Vivaz. The three Nokia phones in that store are all simple feature phones, free with a service plan. The Verizon (NYSE: VZ) Wireless store won't let me search for Symbian devices, and its only Nokia product is another free-after-discount quasi-smartphone with a strange sliding keyboard design.

How about eternal counterculture upstart Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S)? There's no mention of Symbian or Nokia anywhere in its phone catalog. Sprint has eight Android gadgets, though, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the absolutely unheralded Sanyo Zio.

The Sumo Zen?
That's right: Sanyo phones get more airplay than Nokia's over here even though Nokia remains the worldwide leader in both overall phone sales and smartphones. If you want a highly capable Nokia N8 touchscreen phone, you gotta buy it unlocked from (Nasdaq: AMZN) or some other third-party retailer for $549 per unit, and then sign up for a service plan with AT&T or T-Mobile.

There are no carrier subsidies and no marketing partnerships, and even if this phone blows the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPhone 4 to smithereens (which I'm not saying it does), nobody would know about it. And would you pay that much for a phone, even if it were the best, prettiest, coolest, and all-around most socially acceptable gadget on the market? I don't think so. And this is what passes for "the U.S. Version" of the N8, not some fly-by-night import.

Now Elop has hired former Verizon marketing guru Jerri DeVard as chief marketing officer, and you have to believe that she will pull some tricks out of her personal network to build a relationship between Nokia and Verizon.

That doesn't mean Nokia's smartphones will instantly start selling like hotcakes in America -- after all, Nokia is losing smartphone share to Androids and iPhones on a global scale. Innovation is still key to Nokia's success, with or without top-notch marketing expertise. But DeVard's hiring is an important step into our very large smartphone market. Throw in a wholesale makeover of Nokia's opaque product-naming system, and I might be convinced that the company could make a serious impact stateside.

Will it work?
Nokia is huge around the world and especially strong in China. Elop thinks that success should translate into strong American sales, too, as he told analysts the following in his first earnings call at Nokia's rudder:

Our lack of success in the North American market has also been characterized as a weakness. While it is certainly that, it is also a symptom. There is no systemic reason that Nokia cannot succeed in North America. I believe there is a degree of focus and execution necessary, along with different patterns of doing business, that can drive success in that marketplace.

And I think he hit the nail on the head right there.

Is this a turning point in Nokia's knotty history or just a meaningless hire? Keep an eye on how the Nokia story develops from here by adding the stock to your Foolish Watchlist.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft, which is also a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Apple and Amazon are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Apple and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.