Exclusive Interview: John Wang, Chief Marketing Officer Of Handset Maker HTC

Wang Discusses Importance Of Consistent Global Branding, Localization, And HTC’s Unique Brand Messaging

John Wang of HTC (Image: Fast Company)

John Wang of HTC (Image: Fast Company)

This weekend, Jing Daily sat down for an interview with John Wang, the Chief Marketing Officer of the Taiwanese handset maker HTC, at the MIT Sloan Asia Business Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Over the course of our discussion, Wang spoke to us about the marketing strategies and brand philosophy that have been instrumental in HTC’s steady growth over the past five years, noting that the brand’s motto — “Quietly Brilliant” — transcends linguistic and cultural boundaries.

Jing Daily: Do you have a process of localization for individual markets — say for the Chinese market, the Taiwanese market, or the North American market?  Do you see much difference in what these consumers demand from their phones?

John Wang: Every HTC phone has about 300 SKUs. That’s huge. Think about how many countries there are in the world — there are only 205. So the number of variants we have is actually greater than the number of countries in the world. Now, what does this mean? It means localization goes down to the level of mobile carrier, so f0r example, in the US there isn’t just one version of phone. There are versions within different carriers and networks. The same goes for Europe, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, or China. So, that’s a long-winded way of saying, “Yes” about localization.

Ironically, when you see enough of these variations, you start to realize that the human race is actually quite similar wherever you go. Everybody wants to have their ringtone politely fade away when they pick it up. Everybody wants to flip their phone over when they’re in a meeting, whether that meeting’s in Beijing or Seattle. There are differences, however. Everybody wants to be able to connect with their friends, but in the US people use Facebook. In Asia, people use something else. In China, for example, there is a Facebook equivalent.

But you know what? That actually says commonality. Everybody wants to use social networking. The only real difference is that the popular Facebook platform in China isn’t actually Facebook. That’s all. So HTC would embody different social networking services in China versus other places.

As a marketing exec, what do you feel like are the unique challenges you face in marketing to mainland China versus Taiwan or the American market?

The aspects that are different are the channels, and the media. The aspects that are the same are the brand position, which is extremely consistent. You’ve probably seen some of the ad campaigns we run in the US. If you go to China, you see the exact same thing. In Hong Kong it’s the same thing as well. Because HTC is a “quietly brilliant” brand. It’s not focused on us, it’s focused on you. You are the center, rather than the company, and that itself is “quietly brilliant.” That doesn’t change, no matter what culture we are in.

In the US, social media is very important, outdoor [advertising] is important, some TV is important. Our partnership with Verizon has been really good. Now, that aspect is very US-specific. In China, for example, there are many retail stores, and the environment is very different. You walk into a place and Nokia, Samsung, and other brands are all sold alongside each other. So the way we promote the “you experience” in that context differs from what we’d do in the US, so the execution is different, but the soul of the brand is identical no matter where you go.

So the actual “quietly brilliant” message is always the same, in every language, always the same message?

Yes. It has to be.

How does that resonate in different languages? Since that message has different impact in different languages, do you feel it resonates equally across the world or is it more effective in certain markets?

It’s surprisingly consistent. We’re saying it’s not about ourselves, it’s about the consumer. It’s about being humble, and that’s always the same no matter what language we use to communicate that idea.

You might even guess, at least I did, that “Quietly Brilliant” would be more aspirational in the UK, because in America we don’t say “brilliant.” The British say “brilliant.” But we actually did consumer research, and the place where we had the greatest resonance was actually Chicago. That was counter-intuitive to me. And the phrase didn’t even score as high in Asia, even though you would think with Asian culture it would resonate very well there. It actually resonated most in America. In many ways it’s counter-intuitive, but if you think about it it actually makes sense. Because in the US it’s actually a very unique position, and although being “humble” is not something we usually think about in America it’s a position we respect and aspire towards.

I remember we had one focus group where a young lady was asked, “Who in your life is quietly brilliant?” and she said, “The first person I thought of is my dad. He knows a lot, but he doesn’t say much, but when he says something we all listen.” And think about to a daughter, the position of her father in her heart, he occupies a special place. And if a woman can associate a brand the same way she associates her father, that is quite a position. And that’s in America.

It’s almost a Confucian position. Doing rather than saying, don’t talk about yourself.

Yeah, but it’s actually a lot more powerful in America, it’s embraced more by Americans than in Asia. As surprising as it is, that’s what the market is telling us. Being humble is not about being quiet, it’s a demonstration of inner strength, inner confidence.

Once a guy showed me a picture of a Ford Mustang and said, “To me, this is ‘quietly brilliant.'” And I was thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding.” But what he said was, “I’ve got a Mustang. I don’t speed. I drive slowly, because I know I can speed.” That’s a demonstration of inner strength and inner confidence. Because of that, you don’t need to show off because you know you can.

The success of HTC's EVO has been instrumental in its growing profile in the US over the past several months

The success of HTC's EVO has been instrumental in its growing profile in the US over the past several months (Image: Engadget)

At the conference today, David Steel of Samsung said turnover for mobile phones in South Korea is something like every six months. How do you deal with the turnover in places like Korea versus a place like the US, where turnover is much slower? Do you release new products more quickly, or do you stick to a core set of phones?

Consumer turnover doesn’t really impact what we do, because we don’t set out to turnover phones, we set out to create what we call “insightful moments of delight.” So we don’t need to really advertise that to you, because you’ll discover the cool features over time.

People use the word “innovation” almost too much, but consumers don’t usually care that much about innovations like faster CPUs. We focus on certain types of innovation that put a smile on your face. Whether you buy a phone and use it for two years, you’re gonna be delighted. If you wanna switch phones every six months, you’ll still be delighted but you’ll just spend more money. I see the young generation now, they buy new phones all the time and just sell their old phone on eBay. It’s like they’re leasing a phone in a way.

How long has HTC’s big marketing push been going on in global markets like the US?

Only in the last one year. HTC’s awareness in America has jumped from almost nothing to being one of the sold-out brands in Sprint and Verizon stores.

Do you feel the American tech blogs have been instrumental in HTC’s success over the past year?

Well it’s not something we’ve architected. I think this is consistent with what I said today [at the conference]. If you build a humble culture,  you just think about doing the right things and you let other people do the talking. We don’t monitor what’s being said on Facebook or YouTube, good or bad. We respect it.

You can see that whenever somebody complains about HTC online, we work hard to fix the problem and impress people. That’s the attitude and culture to actually do.


Jing Daily would like to thank John Wang of HTC for taking the time to speak with us, and Paul Denning, Director of Media Relations at MIT, for setting up the interview.

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