Ringing in the underdogs

Ringing in the underdogs
HTC Chief Marketing Officer, Benjamin Ho, on his hands is the new flagship phone HTC ONE (M8)

Call it the rise of the underdogs.

In one corner, you have Mr Benjamin Ho, a diploma holder from a private school in Singapore.

Now 52, he stands tall as the chief marketing officer of Taiwanese phone-maker HTC.

It was Mr Ho's idea to recruit Hollywood A-lister Robert Downey Jr of Iron Man fame as HTC's brand ambassador.

And, guess what? Downey saw HTC as an underdog, just as he himself was during his struggle with drug addiction.

The actor even coined the marketing campaign's catchphrase - Here's to Change - launched in August to promote the HTC One smartphone, Mr Ho told My Paper.

Within the three weeks of launching Downey's promotional video for the HTC One, there were seven million hits on the company's website.

"It's a coming together of common minds," said Mr Ho, who rose through the ranks despite not having a university degree.

HTC, too, has been late in the game. Despite being around since 1997, it is only in the past six years that the company began marketing its smartphone models and playing catch-up with other phone brands.

Since then, it has encountered a few bumps in its revenue - HTC recorded a first-quarter operating loss of NT$1.88 billion (S$78.2 million), its second loss in three quarters - but overall, it has managed to keep afloat. And under Mr Ho's watch, it has even started to grow its share of the pie.

The company's sales last month did not fall for the first time in 28 months, rising 2.16 per cent instead.

The firm's marketing strategy is also targeted at "change-makers" and the "underdog consumer segment", a minority group Mr Ho described as "very tech savvy".

The company tries to snap at the top dogs' heels.

One of its teams ambushed Samsung's launch event for the Galaxy S4 in New York last year, and tried to promote its own phone while handing out hot cocoa and coupons to consumers and reporters standing in the cold outside Radio City Music Hall.

Mr Ho is no stranger to the hard fight. The youngest of seven children, he recalls growing up in a household which had many mouths to feed.

"A meal to us then was a plate of white rice with some soya bean and soya sauce. Once a week, we had an egg - a luxury," said Mr Ho, who worked several part-time jobs throughout his schooldays to help his father out. "It was all about working hard those days, no Internet, no shortcuts to success."

He secured a diploma from Stamford College, but did not have the financial means to enter a local university.

After graduating with a diploma in business studies and marketing, he joined a local advertising agency and stayed put for seven years. After that, he moved to Hong Kong to further develop his advertising skills in an unfamiliar environment.

Since then, change has been a constant. He has worked in Taiwan's Far EasTone Telecommunication and Motorola Asia, slowly climbing up the ranks.

He served as vice-president and chief marketing officer at Motorola Asia Pacific for close to seven years, and as executive vice-president of business strategy and marketing at Far EasTone Telecommunication in Taiwan for 10 years prior to joining HTC.

Mr Ho acknowledges that there is a lot more pressure now, and HTC has to work 10 times harder than its competitors.

"We are not going to give ourselves excuses for not achieving success, though. Let's not make the lack of something be the excuse for not achieving anything," added Mr Ho.


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