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HTC wants One to be its Nexus-like premium line

HTC wants its One series of smartphones to have the same cachet as Google's Nexus. But a more apt comparison maybe the Samsung Galaxy franchise.

HTC Chief Executive Peter Chou holds the new HTC One X Android phone at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.
HTC Chief Executive Peter Chou holds the new HTC One X Android phone at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. HTC hopes it'll have the same kind of brand affinity as the Nexus phones. Stephen Shankland/CNET

When it comes to the One series of smartphones, HTC is hoping to follow Google's playbook for its flagship devices.

HTC wants One to be synonymous with Google's Nexus, which represents the latest and greatest that Android has to offer. Similarly, the One is supposed to be HTC's best combination of design, music capabilities, and camera technology.

"The One brand is so important for HTC's future," said Jason Mackenzie, head of global sales and marketing for HTC, in an interview with CNET. "We're treating it special."

HTC's One series of phones will play a crucial role in the company's resurgence. HTC stumbled at the end of last year amid falling sales and profits, with a glut of phones in the market that never really resonated with consumers. The One series represents a more concentrated effort to make fewer higher quality products, positioning them as flagship phones for its carrier customers.

"You won't see the craziness of last year," Mackenzie said.

Even in the U.S., where HTC and Sprint Nextel just unveiled the Evo 4G LTE, the One will play a big role.

It's Mackenzie who believes the comparisons to the Nexus series are apt. But perhaps the more appropriate parallel is to Samsung's Galaxy S line of smartphones, which over the past two years have built up a reputation as the company's flagship products.

Nexus or Galaxy?
There's a case to be made for both. The Nexus phones have been a showcase for the latest version of Android, from the initial Nexus One -- built by HTC -- to the latest Galaxy Nexus from Samsung. There's even a rumored Nexus tablet that Google could put out to drum up interest in an Android tablet.

While the Nexus name may get smartphone enthusiasts giddy with excitement, it doesn't resonate as much with average consumers.

"Certainly in terms of volumes, HTC would want to aspire to the Galaxy brand rather than the Nexus one," said Ross Robin, an analyst for the NPD Group.

HTC more likens the One to the Nexus from a quality and buzz perspective. But on a practical level, the Galaxy seems to be a better fit.

The Galaxy brand extends to a number of products, including its tablet line and multiple tiers of smartphones. But savvy consumers know that Galaxy S represents the company's best effort and flagship smartphone.

The initial Galaxy S was a hit phone around the world, but in the U.S., Samsung made tweaks and added different names like Captivate, Vibrant, and Epic to the phones. Still, the company was able to retain the Galaxy S brand, which was emblazoned on the back of each device. The success of the line sparked demand for a much improved Galaxy S II phone, which actually kept its name at AT&T and T-Mobile. Only Sprint chose to customize it slightly by calling it the Epic 4G Touch.

"I think Samsung was right to create strong branding for 'Galaxy,'" said Christopher Collins, an analyst at market research firm Compete.

Like other premium devices such as the Nexus or the Apple iPhone, there tends to be only one Galaxy S launch each year, making it a unique annual event. Generally, the Galaxy brand signifies quality, Collins said, a testament to Samsung's marketing prowess.

Mackenzie, however, was hesitant to draw comparisons between the One and the Galaxy brand, noting that Samsung tends to use the Galaxy brand as a catchall for its Android devices.

It's also a safe bet that HTC won't launch more than two series of phones each year using the One brand, Mackenzie said. Samsung tends to launch several variants of its Galaxy phones throughout the year.

HTC wants One to be an aspirational brand for consumers, with a consistent good, better, and best option, Mackenzie said. The current iterations are the affordable One V, the mid-tier One S, and the high-end One X. Unlike Samsung, which uses its Galaxy name across all Android products, HTC wants to keep the One limited.

A One phone without the One name
Yesterday's announcement of the Evo 4G LTE represents a notable exception to HTC's strategy. Despite a new design, the Evo 4G LTE shares the same guts as the One X. The companies went back and forth discussing the use of the One brand, but ultimately felt the Evo brand was strong enough to warrant another shot.

"It's one of the more successful brands out there," Mackenzie said, noting that 7 million phones from the Evo franchise have been sold since the first Evo 4G was released two years ago.

The Evo 4G LTE is considered a flagship smartphone in the U.S., he said, and will get the appropriate push.

Sprint considers the phone a premier product, Fared Adib, Sprint's vice president of product development, told CNET, who said he hoped the phone would do as well as the original Evo 4G. Many of the original Evo customers are coming off of their two-year contracts now, and will likely be looking to upgrade. Sprint and HTC are banking that they want to stick with HTC's flavor of Android.

In addition to the Evo push, Mackenzie noted that an unprecedented number of carriers have committed to the One series. In the U.S., AT&T plans to sell the One X, while T-Mobile USA will sell the One S.

HTC or Samsung aren't unique in trying to craft a sub-brand to represent its best phones. Apple has already done it with the iPhone, which also emerges once a year, while Nokia is trying to do it with its Lumia line of Windows Phone devices.Verizon Wireless has even done it with its Droid franchise.

"A lot of phones launched today are largely undifferentiated, so anything an original equipment manufacturer can do to create differentiation is important," Collins said.