How the HTC One M8 will put the pow in its pitch

When is Batman's Commissioner Gordon an upgrade over Iron Man? In HTC's latest series of ads, starring an intense Gary Oldman.

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The HTC One M8 will enjoy a bold marketing campaign. Sarah Tew/CNET

If nothing else, it's a memorable 20 seconds.

That's the length of time actor Gary Oldman silently stares at you, his eyes focused and unblinking. The scene fades, and the commercial ends with Oldman introducing the HTC One M8.

It's not the usual TV spot. Oldman doesn't tout its features or the design of the phone, which was introduced last week. Instead, he dares you to do your own homework.

"Go ahead, ask the Internet. I'll wait," he says, right before the laser-like stare-down begins.

It's a campaign that walks the fine line between confident and arrogant -- what if people had asked the Internet, and the response wasn't positive?

That's the risk Taiwan-based HTC, which has tumbled out of the top ranks of global smartphone makers (Gartner lumps it into the "other" category), decided to take when it came up with the concept for the commercial six to eight months ago. While market leaders Samsung Electronics and Apple have billions of dollars to throw at advertising, HTC, which can only spend a fraction of its rivals, knew it needed to stand out in the seemingly endless stream of smartphone ads and win over customers from its rivals.

It also needed to prove that it could do something it hasn't been able to do so far: drum up attention for its best products.

"It was a risk, but we had to do something different," Erin McGee, HTC's vice president of marketing for the US, said in an interview with CNET. "We knew we needed something to elevate us above the white noise."

How effective the ads will be remains unclear, though the early feedback from reviewers on the phone has been positive. But Samsung is readying a marketing blitz to tout the next version of its own smartphone, the Galaxy S5. It's expected to hit the market in the coming weeks, and the company has a good track record of producing slick, appealing ads.

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A large ad found in Chicago. HTC

Indeed, with Samsung's marketing might over the past several years -- the company reportedly spent $14 billion on marketing and advertising last year -- few smartphone and tablet makers not named Apple have been able to stand out.

Things will be different this year, McGee promises.

In the US, HTC plans to spend an "exponential" amount more on advertising than last year, she said. The ads will target large cities, complementing a "heavy" digital campaign. More importantly, this isn't just a short burst to promote the One M8. The company is planning a campaign to run throughout the year to reinvigorate the HTC brand.

Industry observers say they are impressed with HTC's early efforts.

"They'll stir up a good bit of buzz with this marketing," said Gene Grabowski, senior strategist at marketing and communications firm Levick.

Galaxy S5 was 'another gift'

While the tone of HTC's Oldman ad, which is designed for the US, struck a confident tone, HTC was anything but -- at least at first.

The company comes from humble roots. Founded in 1997, it's early focus was on building notebooks before it manufactured phones for other companies such as the carriers. It began building its own products, initially using the old Windows Mobile operating system and eventually Android, where it created the first Android phone in the G1. It's first global marketing tagline -- "Quietly Brilliant" was a nod to its days in the shadow as the silent manufacturing partner to better known brands.

Over the past few years, HTC has attempted to shed the "quiet" bit of the tagline, even as it has had to shout louder to be heard over the torrent of Samsung ads. As one of the few pure smartphone makers left, it has had to go up against companies with more diversified businesses and deeper pockets.

HTC President Jason MacKenzie said he wanted to be a lot bolder with its most recent approach.

"We wanted to walk this line of confidence and arrogance, and we were careful to not tip that," he said in an interview with CNET.

Mackenzie said he felt even better at Mobile World Congress after Samsung unveiled the Galaxy S5, which offers several internal improvements and new features, but a relatively similar-looking body.

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HTC doesn't seem worried about the Galaxy S5. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"When we got to MWC and saw Samsung's S5 announcement, we felt it was another gift," he said, dismissively noting its plastic body.

Samsung didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

In another TV spot, Oldman -- who played Commissioner Gordon in the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman movies -- says "blah, blah, blah" in place of listing features for the One M8.

The use of so many "blahs" embraces the notion that ads are white noise, McGee said.

So far, the duo of Oldman ads have been more effective than another high-profile HTC campaign starring Robert Downey, Jr. The series of ads, starring the actor best known as Iron Man, were deemed nonsensical -- and ultimately ineffective -- by analysts and industry observers.

A fast start

One of the most impressive feats of HTC's One M8 launch was having the phone available in multiple countries on the day it was announced. Phones typically launch weeks or even months after they're unveiled, subject to the shipping schedules of the carriers.

"It's something no one else has done," Mackenzie said.

HTC managed to get three of the big US carriers -- Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and Sprint -- ready to sell the One M8 after its March debut. T-Mobile was the exception. While it has opened pre-registration for the phone, a T-Mobile spokeswoman told CNET that it would be promoting the device aggressively in stores, online, and through its social channels when it launches on April 11.

While HTC didn't offer any of the carriers an exclusive deal in the US, it did promise Verizon Wireless that it could be the first to offer it in its stores through April 9 (you currently have to order online if you want it at another carrier). In exchange, Verizon has featured the HTC One M8 in its "More Everything" campaign, which features a buy-one-get-one-free promotion. That was an impressive deal considering the carriers have largely shifted their focus to touting their network superiority.

"We've given this phone a lot of attention," said a Verizon spokeswoman.

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Verizon's buy one, get one free promotion for the HTC One M8. Screenshot by Roger Cheng/CNET

AT&T said it is still working out its advertisement plans for the phone. "We've been a meaningful long-term supporter of HTC and continue to be," AT&T Mobility Chief Marketing Officer David Christopher said in an interview with CNET.

He believes it "will be received well."

Sprint didn't respond to request for comment.

Mounting the comeback

Mackenzie said he believes HTC will generate revenue growth led by sales of the M8. But he's also banking on demand for HTC's mid-tier Desire line, which shares a similar look to the One M8, but uses a plastic body and contains more less powerful components such as the camera or processor.

He also reiterated the company's goal of creating a lower priced line of phones to fully flesh out the product portfolio. An unlocked One M8 sells for $650, or £550, while the Desire 816 will retail for around $350.

An expanded lineup could help HTC's market position, which has taken a hit over the last few years. HTC only held 1.8 percent of the global market in the fourth quarter, down from 3.2 percent a year ago, according to Gartner. No. 1 Samsung, in comparison, owns nearly a third of the global market for smartphones.

Having more products for customers to choose from could, in a roundabout way, help propel One M8 sales, Mackenzie said. An expanded product line might allow it to command more shelf space -- and hopefully draw more consumer eyeballs.

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A rendering of a large ad in New York's Times Square. HTC

"In the past, we focused on the HTC One, and it was to our detriment," he said. "We got pretty lost in retail."

In addition to spending more on ads, HTC also made the decision to invest in its Advantage program, which replaces phones with cracked screens within the first six months -- something Apple and Samsung don't do. HTC also promises to roll out Android updates in a timely manner.

HTC learned its lesson when it comes to outreach, Levick's Grabowski said. He called it a public relations coup to get so many of the new phones in the hands of reporters, bloggers, and product reviewers quickly.

The M8 got 275 percent more press coverage than the original One, suggesting a crack in mainstream media, Mackenzie said. Almost 9 million people watched the M8 announcement on its Web site, he added.

"You couldn't turn around and not see the HTC One," Grabowski said.

As to whether its campaign is arrogant, McGee noted that HTC wasn't the company making bold, declarative statements about its own products, taking a not-so-veiled shot at Samsung's branding, borrowed from Apple, that it is the provider of the next big thing.

"We don't have to call it the next big thing," McGee said. "The Internet will."

 

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