The comeback trail: An inside look at HTC’s One (M8) launch

An exclusive interview with HTC America president Jason Mackenzie and VP of North America marketing Erin McGee

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HTC One M8 SalesImage Source: Zach Epstein, BGR

The launch of HTC’s new flagship smartphone was accompanied by some of the most enthusiastic reviews I can recall seeing in recent history. In my own HTC One (M8) review, I called the M8 the best Android phone the world has ever seen. Other reviews from tech sites and newspapers said much of the same — but as far as HTC is concerned, all that praise is for naught if it doesn’t translate into retail momentum.

So it must have been quite troubling for HTC, then, when a report emerged last week suggesting that the One (M8) was off to a very slow start in the United States. The source of the report was questionable, however, and the M8 hadn’t yet been made available in most carrier stores.

Is the M8 really off to a slow start, or has HTC finally struck a chord with consumers?

During an exclusive interview with HTC America president Jason Mackenzie and VP of North America marketing Erin McGee, I sought to answer that question.

In a traffic study published late last week, ad firm Chitika said that the HTC One (M8) represented just 0.1% of traffic across its network after its first week of availability. Beyond the fact that the figure is painfully small, the firm also said that M8 traffic was far lower than last year’s One, which accounted for 1% of traffic after its first week of availability.

Chitika has a mixed history with these traffic reports. ZDNet’s Ed Bott ran a scathing takedown last year calling the firm and its practices into question, but Chitika has issued some stats in the past that have later been found to resemble reality fairly closely.

So I asked HTC.

HTC says it can’t yet share specific sales numbers due to Taiwan stock exchange regulations. With that said, however, I got some good data out of HTC executives showing that the M8 is off to a much better start than Chitika’s report suggests.

Regarding media and consumer interest, HTC America president Jason Mackenzie says HTC’s new One (M8) has received 300% more press coverage than the HTC One (M7). And last year’s M7, according to Mackenzie, enjoyed “exponentially more coverage” than any previous HTC device.

HTC is also seeing a 250% increase in web traffic since having unveiled the One (M8), and it says more than 8 million people visited its site to watch the live video stream of the press conference at which the M8 was unveiled.

All of those numbers are impressive indeed, but they’re not sales.

“Our first week of sales with one operator — with Verizon — was significantly better than the first week last year across multiple operators,” Mackenzie told me.

With in-store availability only at Verizon Wireless and online availability at three of the four top U.S. wireless carriers, HTC’s first week of M8 sales was substantially better than M7 sales during its debut week in 2013.

Again, we still don’t have hard numbers but at the very least, we now know beyond any doubt that HTC’s new flagship phone is moving in the right direction. We also now know that Chitika’s report is meaningless.

Beyond just sales, I found another report that popped up last week to be quite interesting.

A leaked slide from an internal presentation showed that Samsung is actively preparing its staff to do battle with the HTC One (M8), going as far as to create talking points to help them illustrate why the new Galaxy S5 is better than HTC’s new flagship phone. The company listed water- and dust-resistance, the camera and Knox mobile security software among the reasons the Galaxy S5 is a better phone than HTC’s new One (M8).

“Why are they a worried about little old HTC?” Mackenzie retorted in response to Samsung’s presentation. “It’s another sign that this is not just a Samsung/Apple world.”

He continued, “We launched a product that they should be concerned about.”

In the first quarter of 2014, Samsung’s $8 billion operating profit was about eight times greater than HTC’s total Q1 revenue. With that in mind, it does seem curious that the company would put effort into attacking a rival that is so small in comparison.

Mackenzie also offered his own bullet points that highlight areas where HTC feels its new flagship phone outshines the Galaxy S5.

First and foremost, the exec says his company “kills them on design,” likening the design on the back of Samsung’s Galaxy S5 to a Band-Aid. Mackenzie said the M8’s Duo Camera is better than the camera on the S5, as well. “It lets average users take photos that are professional quality,” he told me.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the M8’s camera when I reviewed the phone last month, but a more recent exhaustive comparison of the M8 and iPhone 5s cameras found better results.

Mackenzie also listed BoomSound and HTC Advantage as key areas where the M8 is better than the Galaxy S5. The recently announced HTC Advantage program promises to update phones with new Android software as quickly as possible, and it also allows users to swap out their phones one time in the event that they accidentally crack a screen.

Whether or not the HTC One (M8) will actually steal sales away from the Galaxy S5, HTC’s marketing boss Erin McGee thinks the company’s marketing strategy of pointing to reviews and consumer comments to help spread the word will be impactful. Reviews and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive thus far, after all, and McGee says HTC is “ready to capitalize on that in the market.”

The irony for Samsung in all this might be the fact that according to HTC, the company isn’t trying to “beat” Samsung at all.

“The beauty for HTC and for our customers is we’re not trying to be Toyota or GM and build these things for super mass production,” Mackenzie told me. Instead, HTC wants to be more like Porsche or Audi, building high-quality products for discerning consumers.

“Our objective is not to sell the most phones, but to build the best phones and build a strong, loyal base,” Mackenzie said.

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