Thank You Robert Downey Junior For The Nine Creative Short Films You Created to Celebrate The HTC M9. Honestly, I Don’t Quite Get It.

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Thank you, Robert Downey Jr, for the nine inspirational short films you created to celebrate our all-new HTC One M9. Honestly, as HTC's CMO and the client who commissioned you the project and telling everyone it is a great idea, I am really not getting it. At least not all of it. I just want to be honest about it.

I am considered a very creative person and, as a designer, I appreciate all kinds of art from surrealism to post-modernism. I understood the concepts explained to me by team RDJ before we started this project and I deeply appreciate all the effort and enthusiasm you put into this. It was a lot of hard work and you did it for love (I will keep that secret between us). Thank you RDJ! But I still don’t get it! Ask the Internet?

Yes, I have my official explanation captured in a video of these nine playful vignettes juxtaposing the sleek, color-changing attributes of the new HTC One M9 with timeless pop-culture inspirations, from The Prisoner to Andy Warhol to Charlie Chaplin. I believe you drew inspirations from the features that I explained to you before you started your ideation process, and I can see those connections. The official launch of the films at SXSW last week was a great success, and we received very good feedback from folks in the creative industries. Whether they are viewed individually or as a whole, these nine films are not only entertaining, but they get us thinking.  And hopefully they inspire us to go out and make something!

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The important question for me is, do these very creative short films improve brand presence, brand preferences, and brand relevance for HTC? Those are the right questions, and I don’t have all the answers yet. To put it in context these are not expensive productions, so to get our ROCA (Return on Creative Assets) is not an issue. 

Let's start with the first one brand presence; with millions of people viewing these videos within the first 48 hours, and now spreading across the Internet, the first one is not a question after all. It gets HTC the awareness we needed without spending any money buying paid media on TV or social platforms. So, it is a very effective way for maintaining awareness in an already noisy world. It is a lot better than chest thumping to get noticed. We don’t want to be Tarzan. We’d rather be Charlie Chaplain.

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The second question is, does it create brand preference for the HTC brand? This effort itself is no easy undertaking. To make a brand more preferred over others in a defined category (in our case, the smartphone) is an expensive and long-term undertaking, and there is no short cut. The most common approaches involve highlighting certain unique selling propositions to make the brand more attractive; focusing on incremental performance (such as battery life) or improved service (extended warranty programs, and so on) as differentiators. These things don’t change brand preferences at all, and even highly visible sponsorships, celebrity endorsements, and more engaging social media programs rarely change it. Shaping brand preferences is not an overnight thing.

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The problem is that over-investing in advertising (beyond the minimum level) rarely changes the market share structure. Customers are less inclined or motivated to change brand loyalties in established markets – emerging markets are a very different story – unless it is a low involvement purchase. Over-spending on marketing usually hurts margins, profitability, and, ultimately, results in a decline into irrelevance. HTC made that mistake before with the big TV campaign. Internal numbers showed an increase of just 10 to 15 percent of improved brand awareness. In short, it doesn't do anything at all. It was a disaster and a laughingstock. Sony made the same mistake by pouring out big ad dollars in 2014. Sony overall generated $17.4 billion in revenue, but posted a net loss of $1.2 billion during its fiscal second quarter last year. Sony smartphone units saw revenue rise 1.2% year over year to $2.8 billion, but slid to a $1.6 billion operating loss and effectively wiped out all the profits Sony made from other business units during the quarter.

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The average tenure for a CMO is very short. Samsung and HTC burnt through a few CMOs in a short period, and so do many other companies. For CMOs to succeed, they must sit at the top of an ASS – “Agile, Scientific, and Social” – marketing organization, and new capabilities need to be built from the ground up based on these new requirements. The art and science of marketing is advancing towards the ASS model. Advertising agencies are further behind the curve than clients, and clients are demanding more.

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The third question is, do these films create Brand Relevance? This is a question for debate. These short films are irrelevant on their own at least for some, including myself. But does it matter? Apple and Samsung are known to everyone as two market leaders, and so they need to market to everyone. They need to appeal to their served customers. But HTC is different. We are definitely not selling to everyone, even though it is fair to say that our products are for everyone. The reality is that awareness is not the main driver in increasing brand strength and relevance; how relevant your product is in the minds of your customers, and how your brand is being perceived to be unique is more important. The world is desperately moving towards being more individualized and personalized. Mass advertising works based on appealing to the lowest denominators and it has its place. 

I believe in the market of ONE. Industrial economics may not (yet) allow us to produce highly customized smartphones, and mass media is the same. Even though social media is slowly behaving like broadcast media, it is hard to create customized messages due to the economics of content production. Here this is a good experiment to allow people draw on their imagination to create their own interpretations. I hope this encourage more brands to take bolder moves to co-create meanings with customers and not brainwashing the with a message and a reason to believe. That's so 80s.

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If you are able to achieve greater customization (through messages and meanings), it will be very relevant to your customers and it will resonate with them. As a result, customers will specifically seek out that brand or product. This is the hypothesis the super short mini-films are based upon. It is an experiment; they are not ads, they are not viral videos, and they are not micro-films. I don’t know what to call them – just some very short films.

Transformative marketing has no cruise control or auto-pilot switch. It exists in an accelerating paradigm: more dramatic changes, more often. Brands of the future will take risks and lead change, not simply respond to it. As marketers we need to have the courage to commit to finding new and bold ways of doing things and being relevant. 

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I’ll now take off my marketer’s hat and switch to an art critic’s hat. The literal definition of artist as brand (Robert Downey Jr) is “a creator who has become a unique star, symbol, icon, Mr. Iron Man,” but the idea goes deeper that that. I believe marketing can empower an artist’s authentic purpose, identity and creativity. When an individual’s core purpose and creative talent are synergistically aligned and amplified with a product's design philosophy, they can become “transcendent symbols.” This is not about fame. This is about creative power in the truest sense of the word. Know thyself. The world will recognize it too.

One artist + One phone = Nine visions.