HTC vs Sony – opposite branding strategies at play

by: Simon HillJanuary 29, 2013


When the figures for global smartphone shipments in Q4 of 2012 were released by IDC they revealed that HTC is losing its grip and Sony is making gains. Sony claimed fourth place in the chart with 9.8 million handsets shipped and a 4.5 percent market share. HTC dropped out of the top five altogether, although it is listed as fourth for the whole year with a 4.6 percent share. The two companies seem to be going in opposite directions and if we look at the branding strategies we can clearly see why.

The race for second

Chart: Worldwide Smartphone Vendors Market Share, 2012 Q4Description: IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker provides smart phone and feature phone market data in 60 countries and 8 regions by vendor, device type, air interface, operating systems and platforms, and generation. Over 20 additional technical segmentations are provided. The data is provided four times a year and includes historical and forecast trend analysis. For more information, or to subscribe to the research, please contact Kathy Nagamine at 1-650-350-6423 or [email protected] detail about this tracker can be found at: Samsung, Apple, Huawei, ZTE, Sony, Mobile Phone, Smartphone, IDC, tracker, Q4 2012, mobile phones, 4Q 2012, market share, galaxy, iPhone, Android, iOS, Holiday QuarterAuthor: IDCcharts powered by iCharts

The battle for second place behind Samsung in the Android world is set to be fierce this year. The Chinese contenders Huawei and ZTE, third and fifth respectively in that same Q4 2012 chart, are expanding fast. LG has raised its profile considerably with the Nexus 4. Google’s Motorola Mobility acquisition could still bear hardware fruit. Then we have Sony and HTC.

Both companies would dearly love to claim that spot and maybe even take on the might of Samsung in years to come, but success requires the right strategy.

Understated quality with HTC

We’ve discussed the rise and fall of HTC in the past. The company has been in a steady decline since Q3 of 2011. It built a reputation for manufacturing quality, premium Android smartphones like the HTC Desire and solid mid-range devices like the HTC Hero. It released the first ever Android smartphone, the HTC Dream or T-Mobile G1 and manufactured Google’s first Android flagship, the Nexus One. That reputation for innovation continued with the first 4G release, the HTC Evo 4G.

HTC was on the cutting edge. The brand, with the tagline “quietly brilliant” was all about word of mouth. The devices spoke for themselves and HTC was the manufacturer to go with for people in the know. The Taiwanese company had seemingly come out of nowhere to claim the third spot behind Apple and Samsung.

Where did it all go wrong?

As 2011 wore on HTC deviated from the premium strategy that had served it so well. The company had dabbled with the budget end of the market with the HTC Wildfire, which probably didn’t do much to enhance its reputation, but worse was to come. The HTC ChaCha, Salsa, and the Rhyme were all very different from previous HTC releases and they didn’t do well. Combined with a confusing naming convention which revived old models and tagged letters on the end, HTC was eroding its own reputation.


At the end of 2011 there was the HTC Rezound and the Beats Audio partnership. Instead of establishing winning audio quality and the cool factor HTC wanted, the whole Beats Audio thing dominated all the advertising and gave the impression that HTC phones were about music, rather than being all-round cutting edge devices.

In 2012 HTC belatedly tried to create a Galaxy style brand with the One series. It’s interesting because even in the summer of 2012 when the HTC One X went head-to-head with the Galaxy S3 a lot of people thought the One X edged it and no one was predicting the landslide victory that the S3 enjoyed. The advertising was off again. In the UK HTC ran an irritating ad featuring a fashion photographer skydiving and using the One X. Nick Jojola ten times a day accompanied by a smug voiceover did not enhance the brand and it also focused on the photography angle too much. Just as the Beats campaign gave the impression of a music phone, this ad gave the impression of a photography phone.


It wasn’t really until December 2012 that HTC managed to create a buzz again, this time with the 5-inch HTC J Butterfly or Droid DNA, but concerns about battery life and a lack of storage in the DNA (only 11GB free and no microSD card) don’t make for a smash hit.

HTC has squandered its reputation and it lacks the marketing muscle to break back into the big leagues. The only way back is to produce quality smartphones with cutting edge features. Goodwill for the HTC name is not completely depleted, but without a hit release in the near future it soon will be.

Sony Ericsson in feature phone obscurity

There’s no doubting Sony is a well-loved electronics brand with years of awesome TVs, audio and video equipment, cameras, desktops, laptops and tablets, as well as hugely successful brands like the Walkman and the PlayStation, behind it, but Sony was never a mobile player.

When the Japanese company decided to have a go at breaking into mobile through a merger with Ericsson in 2001 it didn’t even have 1 percent of the mobile market. The new Sony Ericsson brand wasn’t well received. Attempts to innovate through better cameras and by using the Walkman brand to create music phones resulted in a line of moderately successful feature phones. Within a few years the profits began to roll based on a line of solid feature phones and a focus on emerging markets.

The release of the iPhone in 2007 sounded the death knell for Sony Ericsson. Profits and market share dropped sharply and the company shed thousands of jobs in an attempt to survive. It soon became clear that the smartphone market was the future. Towards the end of 2011 Sony bought out Ericsson and wiped the slate clean. Sony Mobile, relocated in Tokyo, would rise from the ashes.

Ericsson was already in trouble when Sony signed the merger and although it gave Sony a partner with a history and expertise in telecommunications it was never clear that the joint Sony Ericsson brand was a hit with consumers.


Climbing the charts

By focusing on a purely Sony brand the company has been able to instantly tap into the reserve of goodwill for the Sony name. It’s well known the world over for quality consumer electronics. The Xperia branding is clear and the aim is obviously premium smartphone success on the Android platform. There’s no Windows Phone off-shoot to distract Sony, there’s no attempt to mop up the budget end of the market, but Sony still has to learn to hone its line-up and concentrate on a handful of premium releases. Thankfully the company has been making noises about leaving the entry-level market behind.

The ability to tie in the design and branding with its wider product offerings in TV, audio, photography, and gaming, gives Sony serious marketing muscle. It also makes sense to consumers that manufacturing the ultimate convergence device – the smartphone – is something that a company like Sony is uniquely well-suited to do. The marketing is understated, the branding is clear, and that silver signature power button doubles up as the new logo. Is Sony making a comeback? The Q4 2012 figures don’t lie and that’s before the flagship Xperia Z hits the market.

Sony Xperia Z-2

Sony has shown off an ability to make premium Android smartphones, but that’s not enough, just ask HTC. There is another problem for Sony, especially if it wants to crack the U.S. mobile market. Releasing unlocked devices is fine in some countries, but most people go for carrier subsidized deals in the U.S. and Sony doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with U.S. carriers. If the Xperia Z gets picked up by U.S. carriers it’s likely to do well and we can see it flying off the shelves in other markets.

Big branding fail for both HTC and Sony

Sony may be on the up as HTC declines, but there is one big branding fail that both companies are repeatedly committing and it needs to be sorted out. Samsung is the most successful smartphone manufacturer in the world. What is Samsung’s flagship device? You’ll say the Galaxy S3 or the Note 2 right? Now what would you answer for HTC? What would you have said for Sony before the Xperia Z was announced?

olympic games samsung galaxy s3

The problem isn’t necessarily having too many releases because Samsung has more smartphones than you can count, the problem is profile. The average person on the street can name the flagship Samsung device and they can walk into any mobile store and buy it. The company releases a lot of smartphones, but it focusses resources and marketing on the flagships. Sony and HTC don’t seem to have picked up that trick and until they do they will never really challenge Samsung.

  • nebsif

    “no one was predicting the landslide victory that the S3 enjoyed” Really?

    One X had tons of quality control problems on launch, badly glued screen to unibody, yellow spots, practically broken multi tasking etc.

    The lack of mSD and use removable battery made me wait for GS3 to be announced, the quality complaints only reinforced that (and I was dyiiing to buy a new phone then), GS3, even though it didnt look as sexy as 1x, came out to be all around better.

    Said mSD, swappable battery (tranform ur GS3 to GS3MAXXXX if u want to), better DAC, 32nm SOC vs 40nm (= better perf. + battery life), better camera..blabla.

    • On a Clear Day

      The multi-tasking problems as I understand it were the result of the fact HTC realized it screwed up putting in an under-powered, non-removable battery and then decided that one way to cover up their oversight was to make it so that every time you opened up a new app it closed down the previous; despite the fact it had enough memory to run multiple apps.

      When called on it, they said that the reason for this was because that was the way the device was configured. (Yeah, to hide a glaring mistake in judgement!)

    • Simon Hill

      At the time of release a lot of people covered the One X positively and versus articles described it as on a par or very close to the S3. I agree the S3 is a lot better, it’s the phone I went for too, but I don’t think it was clear cut for everyone back then.

  • Nishant

    wonder why HTC is falling.

    launching flagship devices with sealed shut batteries(1800 mah and not RAZR MAXX 3300 mah), people will go for better options, besides flagship model with non expandable memory(at least keep it 32 GB) is not a good idea
    keep the batteries removable and keep the sd card slot , and ppl shall buy it

    • Reginald Spence II

      Lol, tell that to the Nexus 4.

      • nebsif

        For 350$, stock android and latest updates, shure.
        For 600$ laggy sense and updates on half a year delay, nah.

        • Reginald Spence II

          Yep, I’m in the same boat as you, dude.

    • Agreed… I’m not too fussed about expandable storage (its nice to have it, but I’m not a huge gamer tbh and 16gb is generally enough for me as I use cloud space for all my photos) but the changeable battery is essential until phones come with sufficient enough juice to power the device for 24 hrs at least (with moderate to heavy usage) I won’t even consider buying a phone unless I can change the battery. I carry a spare where ever I go and its saved me on numerous occasions.

    • No, my EVO LTE has a great battery and SD card slot. That’s not the point- I am leaving HTC for sony because they are stabbing the dev community in the back and have a hush-hush policy for software updates that are always late. Sense sucks, and even though I am on CM10.1 it has a few bugs everyone perfers stock. They are shooting themselves in the foot- no they are shooting themselves in both knees and elbows

    • John A

      Exactly. I want to go HTC again, but I cant until they either put in a huge battery or leave it removable.

    • On a Clear Day

      I really like the look as well as the feel of the HTC phones. Unfortunately, I don’t buy a phone just to sit around admiring it or so I can cop a feel now and then!

      Whoever was responsible for designing the HTC One ought to be fired. I agree the sealed, low power battery as well as various sundry other negs it had made it a non-starter for consideration.

      Don’t the people designing their phones use them in the real world before they approve them for sale?

    • Simon Hill

      I wonder how many sales HTC actually loses because of battery and storage.

      • well I chose a GS3 over a One X for those two reasons only.

        • Atrius

          And I bought a Note 2 when upgrading my Inspire 4G

      • zverik

        A lot.
        I’m sure.

    • komrade

      wonder why Samsung success.

      “Only samsung phones are fully complete. Almost all other brand makes flawed flagships.”

      I use HTC Desire btw.. :)

      • mohdamr1

        And other manufacturers lag in customer support, updates and accessories. Many of them have no micro sd card slot or removable battery.

  • A very well written article. I’m still amazed at how such large enterprise corporations seem to underestimate the power of marketing? If you are selling something, you need to have the right strategy to market the product. I’ve been in sales for over 17 years, and I can tell you this “if you don’t research into how you’re competition is so successful at selling their products and learn from them, then you might as well not bother”. Apple have shown time and time again that people will buy on name alone and nothing to do with the features of the phone. Lets face it, if the consumers actually knew how bad and overpriced the iPhone was compared to the plethora of other “smarter” phones, then it wouldn’t be successful at all. People buy into branding, and branding comes from effective marketing.

    • On a Clear Day

      Your points are so right. I too am a salesman.

      Does anyone remember Packard Motor Cars?

      Packard was one of the most innovative car companies in the world in its day. While everyone else was selling cars for $400.00 to $600.00 they were selling them for $2600.00 a piece and getting it. Then, one day, along came some “genius” who said, “Well just think of all the people in the lower end we aren’t selling to, we should make a less expensive Packard and make more sales.”

      And so, boys and girls, a less expensive Packard was wrought, and gaily announced to the market. But alas, Packard had made the fatal mistake many car manufacturers have made (especially Volkswagen – which has made it about 2 or 3 times but in reverse thinking they can offer a luxury brand with an economy emblem) of diluting its brand to the point that the people who bought Packards at a premium price happily, BECAUSE they were exclusive, decided they didn’t want a car from a company that built “cheap” cars.

      Whomever is running HTC must have little understanding of positioning in the prospects mind and not much vision about how he wants the products perceived.

      • I agree with a lot of what u said, except maybe for the bit about people knowing that Samsung makes quality products. Younger people may only know them as a company wity quality products but I remember the days of the Little Big Max radios and whatever else they were selling at that stage. It left such a bad taste in my mouth that I didn’t buy any Samsung product again for years. In fact, my first Samsung purchase was a TV 2 months ago after some serious gritting of teeth. (Really wanted the Sony, but it jus cost more than I had to spend). More on t

    • Simon Hill

      Thanks Gary. You’re right, for mass market success marketing is vital.

  • Filip Justin

    HTC and Sony are two manufacturers that have committed suicide.. The HTC HD2 had awesome hardware but a crappy OS, the Xperia Arc was obsolete by the time the SGS2 launched(just 1-2 months after release).. Great job.. I have 3 Samsung phones so far (2 feature phones, an SGS2 and a Note 2) and I can’t wait to buy the SGS4..

    • I must admit, I’m no Samsung “fanboy” however I got the International GT P1000 when I came out in 2010 and since then I have owned the Galaxy Nexus, currently own the Galaxy Note and the Nexus 10. Although Sony do make premium products across many different markets, I’ve never got excited about their phones.. However, I do like the look of the Sony Xperia ZL (the one without the glass back and slightly smaller) When I first got my HTC Desire, it was gorgeous and in my opinion, better than iPhone 3G. Very well built and I loved the Sense UI. At that time, HTC had great phones, but like the guy said in the article, it was pretty much all word of mouth. They failed to capitalize on what made Apple so successful… Marketing.

  • Good article! I like HTC and my droid dna, I also like my note ii, but I’m ready for Sony.

  • Jared Persinger

    If HTC is going to have non removable batteries then atleast put in huge batteries like Motorola does with its droids

  • Bone

    HTC’s downfall is a worrying story for Apple who’s on the brink of entering mid-range territories.

    For a high-end manufacturer, releasing a cheap device is 180 turn on marketing strategy, confusing the crowds, who may simply go for the mid-ranger trusting to get top quality, and turning away for good when they learn it isn’t. Others could find the “iPhone Mini” release the very time to look around the competition, and a Nexus 4v2, price-dropped Droid DNA, Oppo Find 5 or Huawei/Lenovo/ZTE fullHD phone may all sound a far better deal.

    The question if the high-end manufacturer releases a mid-ranger is: who and why should buy the flagship?

  • plaff

    HTC One X never made an effort to sell to android power users, it was competing with iphone i think, that was what HTCs managment hoped for, and failed. No card slot, nonremovable battery, nonsense TV ads. Yeah, that could work for iphone users, but it is like repellant for android users.

    And finally, lets not underestimate how bad the Tegra chipset is, the fifth core is the fifth wheel of the wagon that does more harm than good, especially in webbrowsing its too many times when the main cores will be asleep while the 5th core is trying to do it alone, resulting in a lower browser performance than Galaxy Pocket and other ARM11 based smartphones. I mean, all phones will occasionally stutter in the browser, but freeze up for a second or 3, what is that about?? Its the Tegra magic, its what destroyed great devices like Asus Infinity 700. Ever wondered why the Infinity 700 3G does not freeze up while the wifi only 700 does? Because the 3G has a dual core krait chipset with real performance for real usage.

  • mohdamr1

    I get android updates all the time on my galaxy s3 (every month in average) while two of my family members never got a single update since the day they bought it (more than a year). Why should I consider HTC then ?

    • mohdamr1

      I forgot to mention they bought 2 HTC phones, not Samsung.

  • I recently switched to the HTC One X from my iPhone. I thought the 16GB would be enough & I was not even concerned about the battery. The battery on the HTC One X is actually better (life wise) for my uses than my iphone 4S. However the storage, when when using dropbox for all of my photos & streaming my music, too damn slow. Come On HTC, if you’re going to brand / market a phone for a. music and/or b. photos – BOTH space hogs, dont shoot yourself in the foot with 16gb, really 11gb of space. Pay attention to the market. If you beefed up the battery & storage, you could kill the Android space. However you are ignoring it and going with a half baked product.

  • Chandler Gonzales

    Its also about carriers. Galaxy SIII is on almost every carrier out there, while One X is on AT&T only. That’s the game changer. HTC will never gain mind share as long as its flagship handset is only on one carrier. The same goes for Nokia.

  • b1acktiger

    It would be great that these two companies fits into the duopoly market which Apple and Samsung is leading. For now, Samsung makes all thing under the sun, Displays, Chips etc.. and Apple is enjoying the 75% profit of whole mobile market. Not sure where this Corporations take us.