You’ll soon be hearing more about Taiwanese handset maker HTC. The company is making the leap from white label manufacturer to a brand in its own right. Marketing Week has the story.
For years HTC was best known as the maker of Windows Mobile handsets re-branded by carriers. Unfortunately, Windows Mobile has fallen far behind the iPhone and Google’s Android in mobile software innovation. For its own brand, HTC’s future probably lies more with Android as things look now. HTC’s new Android phones could equal (or better) the new Motorola Droid, assuming that HTC can use the latest version of Android that Google offers. (See this review.)
From enabling partners to enabling customers
HTC’s transition from white label manufacturer to a fully-fledged brand is a transition to a new level of business. In HTC’s case, it’s a transition from enabling mobile partners to one of enabling mobile customers directly. You can see this transition taking shape in HTC’s presentations, and in their advertising.
I may use the word “transition” to describe this change, but brand-wise, it is really a leap. Customers want that leap, too. They want the leap in value that brands can deliver.
HTC’s brand challenge
HTC’s brand challenge is the two-part challenge faced by all white label handset makers. First, HTC has historically been perceived as a maker of feature phones, where product features told the story. However, brands are about customer stories, not features. Specs count, but customers multiply.
Second, the handset itself is only one-third of the mobile phone experience. The handset is tied to the experience provided by the carrier, and by the brand of operating system. As its own brand, HTC must find a way to stand taller than the carrier brand and the brand of operating system in the eyes of customers. It cannot be “a Verizon phone,” nor can it be “a Windows Mobile phone” or “an Android phone.” It must command a context that is purely and uniquely HTC, a context that works wonders for customers.
A cultural transition leap
As a brand, a new HTC will emerge from the old. The transition leap from a manufacturing culture to a brand-enabling customer culture is not easy. Old barriers must fall; new freedoms must rise. From the looks of things, HTC has already made progress along this path. The real brand connection begins when the company and its customers are on the same page, writing it together. HTC’s task is to find that page, and begin a new book.
From “handset maker” to “computer maker”
The “handset” market died in 2007 when Apple redefined the mobile world with the iPhone. The iPhone is not a “handset.” It’s an amazingly powerful computer that fits in the hand—and makes phone calls. It’s the most user-friendly computer ever designed, and now boasts 100,000 apps. For HTC to succeed as a brand, its products cannot be “handsets.” They must be computers. Indeed, they must be better computers (for the customer) than the iPhone. To reach this brand level HTC cannot simply “think outside the handset.” As a brand, HTC must live outside the handset, in a new customer context.
From product to platform
As HTC builds out its brand, the nature of its products will change. They will cease being “products” per se and will grow into platforms for the HTC brand. Building on these platforms, HTC can deliver multiple layers of value direct to customers.
HTC’s brand strategy options
In general, HTC will need to sidestep the carriers, sidestep Android and Windows Mobile, and create its own customers. To do this, HTC must change the brand game. And it must create a new kind of customer. Trying to be “the best Android phone” or “the best Windows Mobile phone” will limit HTC’s brand potential.
Mobile brands are now platforms for customer-driven applications. The challenge is not “How many features can we offer?” The challenge is how to enable 110% of the customer. Brands need that extra 10%. Brands are agents of discovery; they pull customers to richer worlds. A strategy canvas can help.
HTC’s Sense UI is a strong step towards personalizing the mobile phone experience. It certainly demonstrates HTC’s ability to work with the underlying OS to extend the user experience within an HTC brand vision. At a deeper brand level, HTC will need to offer highly engaging apps exclusive to HTC customers. As a brand, HTC is in the app business. The apps will build the brand in ways that hardware cannot. (For more on HTC Sense, see this highly informative interview (video).
Toward a new context of customer
As a brand, it’s entirely within HTC’s power to create a new context of mobile customer. In this context, what the phone does is less important than what it enables customers to do, and to be. As a handset maker, HTC was shipping devices. As a brand, it will be shipping culture.
Image: HTC Hero via User Honza — Wikimedia Commons