HTC marketing chief 'pretty confident' about 2014

Marketing exec Benjamin Ho gives CNET his take on HTC's campaign with "Iron Man" star Robert Downey Jr. and discusses how HTC can apply pressure on Apple and Samsung.

Benjamin Ho, HTC chief marketing officer
This shot of Benjamin Ho, HTC's chief marketing officer, was taken with the new HTC One M8. Aloysius Low/CNET

SINGAPORE -- Everyone knows HTC isn't doing so great -- especially after this week's quarterly earnings report. But Benjamin Ho, the company's chief marketing officer, brushes aside the short-term view.

In an interview with CNET, Ho said he isn't overly concerned about HTC's first quarter and that the company will do better in the current quarter, pointing out how last year's HTC One outsold the earlier One X despite supply issues.

"I wouldn't be too concerned about our business based on the few couple of months. I rather take a longer term perspective. The One M8 will be pretty successful while where we suffered share losses last year was in the mid- and low-tier," he said. Overall, Ho said he feels "pretty confident" about HTC in 2014.

"I wouldn't be too concerned about our business based on the few couple of months."

To get back in this market, HTC has launched its new midrange Desire 816 in China. Announced at Mobile World Congress earlier this year, the handset quickly sold out its initial preorder run of 60,000 units -- no mean feat, as customers in China who wished to preorder one had to pay a deposit fee.

Apart from introducing a bevy of mid- and budget-tier devices, the company will still be selling last year's M7 as well as the One Mini and One Max to ensure a wide range of products for customers.

Ho, a Singapore native who left the country 20 years ago to ply his trade in north Asia, has plenty of experience in the telecom industry. He was with Motorola Asia for a long time, before joining Taiwan-based Far EasTone Telecommunication as its executive vice president in charge of the carrier's marketing initiatives.

Now in the hot seat of making HTC a brand name to be reckoned with, his tactics so far have been interesting, to say the least.

When he first joined the company back in January 2013, Ho was quick on the ball to get word out on HTC's take of its competitor. Right after the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S4, Ho quickly approached various media outlets to offer his view of his competitors newest handset. In a statement emailed to CNET at the time, Ho took a dig at Samsung, saying that the "next big thing wasn't plastic."

HTC -- humongous tinfoil catamaran?

2013 also saw what some would say was a bizarre ad campaign with "Iron Man" actor Robert Downey Jr. that included comedic attempts at teasing out the HTC acronym and thta didn't seem to help the company sell phones.

"Instead of the traditional way of building our brand gradually and slowly, and because the smartphone category is moving too fast, we thought we needed some steroids in the market to create a higher brand awareness for us. And that has actually worked," he said.

Ho claims that even though there were plenty of media and analysts reports that said the campaign failed to help lift sales, he points out that this wasn't the point of the ads. Internal numbers showed an increase of 10 to 15 percent of the company's global brand awareness, he said.

And while the actor remains contracted to the company for two years for a $1 billion ad campaign, you'd be hard pressed to find an image of the actor in public using the company's smartphones.

"We're very careful with RDJ -- it's not just a matter of him holding our phones in public, we don't want him to just hold our phones and say this is the best. He has been using our phone and he's contracted to use it," Ho rebutted.

"We're very careful with RDJ -- it's not just a matter of him holding our phones in public, we don't want him to just hold our phones and say this is the best. He has been using our phone and he's contracted to use it."

Ho further pointed out a newly launched commercial, where the actor drops most of the shenanigans of the earlier commercials (except for brief spell of Old English) as an example of the next phase of HTC's ad campaign with Downey.

"The whole intent is to create 'talkability' for us, and we did achieve that objective. There was a lot of buzz for us after we launched the campaign."

Marketing to the Internet

Ho cheerfully admits that there is no way HTC can compete with the budget of its larger competitors. He says the company has only been in making its own branded handsets for the last six years (the previous years as an original design manufacturer notwithstanding) and is focused on smart devices, compared with Samsung, which has its hands in a lot of other pies.

"Everyone knows our competition outspends us by 13 to 14 times, so for us to fight a traditional war won't be a successful move for us. We're realistic, we have a 3 percent market share today. We aren't crazy about going after our competitors who have like 16 to 17 percent market share or the one [Samsung] with 33 percent," he said.

"Everyone knows our competition outspends us by 13 to 14 times, so for us to fight a traditional war won't be a successful move for us."

"We're realistic about what we can and should do, and there's a considerable gap between No. 1 and 2, and not just the rest of us."

With that in mind, Ho says the company will ask consumers to tap the Internet, where there exists a bevy of positive reviews on HTC's products. He highlighted the company's Gary Oldman ad as an example.

"If we don't have the kind of marketing powers that our competition have, how do you get the news out to your consumers? We asked ourselves where the biggest pool of good write-ups are, and that's the Internet," he said.

"So instead of us spending the funds to bring this out to the consumers, we'll instead draw our consumers into this pool."

Whether this strategy pays off remains to be seen. Apple and Samsung haven't relied on asking consumers to go online to search for reviews; they told consumers how great their products are and how consumers can use them. For now, though, HTC's edgy guerrilla marketing strategy may be just the thing the company needs to set itself apart from its competition without having the money to do so.

Smartwatches and tablets

Lastly, Ho confirmed the company will be launching "richer portfolio" of devices, including a tablet and a smartwatch, though they won't launch till the company can do them right.

"I don't think consumers want to wear a large chunky watch. A smartwatch need not be like a big robot that you wear on your hand. A smartwatch has to fit into the lifestyle of the consumers, whether in terms of design and functionality," he said.

He adds that the company has noticed that early adopters of smartwatches would use one for three months before putting it aside.

"Sometimes, being first in the market has got its advantages. But in terms of new categories, it's also good to observe what's going on before we really serve the market with products and services. Otherwise you'll just become a me too, and I don't think that's HTC."

"Otherwise you'll just become a me too, and I don't think that's HTC."
 

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