Dark horse emerges to raise the iPhone stakes

White-label mobile handset supplier HTC has fixed its sights on Apple as it steps up its efforts to become a dominant brand in the lucrative
smartphone market.

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Think of a smartphone and Apple’s iPhone probably springs to mind. Yet long before Apple was making phones, Taiwanese business HTC Corporation was working with Microsoft and Google to design white-label Windows Mobile and Android-based mobile handsets.

But the problem for HTC has always been that only mobile enthusiasts knew its brand. The majority of consumers using the company’s phones were none-the-wiser as to the manufacturer of the phones; the dominant brands on the handsets were those of the mobile operators.

John Wang, the company’s chief marketing officer, admits: “In the past, we have been a very hidden brand that worked behind the scenes with network and technology giants.”

While Wang claims that the company has “achieved a rich heritage of device firsts” (see Facts & figures), he says it now needs to “establish a relationship with customers as a suitable alternative” to brand-focused handset manufacturers, such as Apple and Nokia.

HTC has been established since 1997, but it wasn’t until 2006 that it launched a handset under its own brand name. Since then, it has been slowly growing in momentum as a challenger brand, and currently has a 6.5% worldwide market share.

Now the company hopes that ditching the white-label strategy and pushing its own brand will help it close that gap. It has convinced the mobile networks to sell the models as HTC phones and launched its first major advertising push to support this. The campaign plays up to the manufacturer’s unknown status with the motto “quietly brilliant”.

Wang says it marks a huge change in the way that HTC communicates with its customers. “We didn’t have an identity before and had very little communications,” he says. “The brand was in its infancy and we were basically taking baby steps. Now we want to put our name out there and show off our brand values though our new positioning.”

Out of the shadows

The idea for HTC to step out of the shadows has been heralded by Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer, who says the brand is “breaking new ground” with its innovations and deserves to develop its own reputation.

Wang says he now realises that HTC has to convert consumers to think in the same way as Ballmer. He has appointed brand consultancy Figtree to update its brand positioning, and the global ad campaign, created by Deutsch LA, features the tagline: “You don’t need to get a phone. You need a phone that gets you”.

The campaign will appear across multiple media, on TV, print, outdoor, online and in-store. HTC UK and Ireland country manager Jon French adds: “HTC is embarking on a strategy to break out of its niche and ensure that consumers are aware of the innovation we offer. Overall, we want to drive footfall to our point-of-sale areas, so we are backing the brand work with in-store training and getting staff to use the devices themselves – then they can convey their excitement to the end user.”

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Simon Myers, chief executive of Figtree, explains the concept behind the campaign. He says: “The new personality presents HTC as democratic and consumer-centric, giving it a real lifestyle association. It’s very significant for this brand to completely revamp its presence because it was previously a behind-the-scenes brand – effectively a white-label specialist that no consumer had heard of.”

According to mobile analysts, the relaunch of HTC is well timed as the mobile handset market is predicted to grow by about 3% over the Christmas period, even with the world in the grips of a recession.

We didn’t have an identity before… Now we want to put our name out there and show off our brand values though our new positioning. John Wang, HTC

Canalys analyst Pete Cunningham says HTC has “timed the campaign perfectly as surveys reveal that HTC smartphone users are happy with their user experience compared with other brands like Sony Ericsson. Smartphone growth is slowing but they are still in demand and HTC is looking to capitalise on that.”

Latest technical specifications

Because the company offers cheaper models than some rivals, but includes the latest technology, this may also convince cash-poor consumers to turn to HTC in order to get the latest technical specifications at a low price. Carolina Milanesi, research director at Gartner, says: “The HTC market tactic of offering cheaper prices for models under Microsoft and Android will capture consumer attention and potentially help to drive sales.”

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HTC’s latest handset, the HD2, runs on Windows Mobile 6.5 and is being touted as a worthy competitor to the iPhone. Its Tattoo and Hero models both run on Google Android and the company now hopes that by promoting itself as a mainstream handset brand with a profile as high as its two technology partners, it can make customers look to HTC as an alternative to established players such as Nokia, BlackBerry and Apple. The Taiwanese company expects shipments of its HTC-branded handsets to grow 5-6% in the final quarter of this financial year.

Wang says: “Mobiles are no longer just an appliance you hold to your ear; they are a part of your everyday behaviour. Compared to our rivals, we have a lot of education to do to ensure that people know that HTC can offer them reliable handsets, backed with Microsoft or Google technology. In five years’ time, we want to be mainstream and known as a successful challenger that offers innovation and reliability.”

He admits, however, that pivotal to this ambition will be smartphones staying in favour with younger generations. “People don’t change phones so much anymore but there is still a feeling in the industry that handsets are changed as and when the fashion changes, much like clothes. We have to capitalise on that and ensure that together with our network partners, we are offering high quality innovation at slightly lower costs.”

HTC has a great deal of ground to make up on its rivals if it is to move from being a white-label supplier to becoming a strong brand in its own right, but Wang is convinced that approaching this with the “quietly brilliant” themed marketing is the right way forward.

He insists that he will take the development of the business as a brand one step at a time, adding: “The idea is to relate to our customers and encapsulate their beliefs and our beliefs, then present them in a very humble way.”

HTC: A history of innovation

Despite being behind the scenes in the mobile market since its formation in 1997, HTC has been behind some major innovations. It was the first to launch a range of devices, including:

  • Colour palm-size PC (1999)
  • Microsoft Pocket PC (2000)
  • Microsoft wireless Pocket PC (2002)
  • Microsoft powered smartphone (2002)
  • Microsoft smart music phone (2004)
  • Microsoft 3G phone (2005)
  • Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0 platform phone (2005)
  • Microsoft triband UMTS 3G device (2006)
  • Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0 smartphone (2006)
  • Microsoft Windows Mobile 6 smartphone (2007)
  • Intuitive touchscreen to allow fingertip navigation (June 2007)
  • Android device – the T-Mobile G1 (2008)
  • Integrated GSM/WiMAX device, which was launched in Russia (2008)
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