The incredible disappearing HTC: what its SA strategy reveals about its global woes



Two of the most incredible Android phones ever created were both launched in the last few weeks, by global manufacturers Samsung and HTC. Both phones, the Galaxy S5 and the One M8, will be available in South Africa and both will reinforce the case that Apple is no longer streets ahead when it comes to the synthesis of hardware and OS. Yet only one of those phones is likely to capture the imagination of consumers in that country. Because it seems that only one brand is trying to.

With all the potential inherent in the HTC brand internationally, why does the globally admired Taiwanese manufacturer struggle to find driven local partners to get behind it and build a strong local footprint and service for the sophisticated South African consumer hungry for great products?

Both phones offer state-of-the-art 21st century design and technology, and both phones showcase the best of what is on offer right now. The New York Times wrote that “both the HTC One (M8) and the Galaxy S5 have top-of-the-line, quad-core, Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processors that support faster 4G LTE, faster Wi-Fi and faster processing of images compared with their predecessors’ and it becomes clear that no expense has been spared to create smash-hit products.

But from a South African point of view, it’s extremely difficult not to be rooting for Samsung, the company that has proven to people in the country that its business is important to them, as opposed to HTC, the company whose phones disappeared in a puff of smoke during the latter half of 2012 with no real explanation offered to a bewildered public.

Clearly this is not an unbiased piece of reportage. Perhaps I am acting like a jilted lover and I just need to get over it. But as a young-ish aspiring tech writer, I thought it mattered which kind of phone you were carrying around and what it said about you. I believed that the spec differences between the phone would make all the difference in how efficiently I was able to do my work and become the mobile, desk-free hipster that I wanted to be. (I know, right?)

After weeks of research I decided that the HTC One was the only way to go, for me. I had a great deal of love and respect for my HTC Desire and I wanted to stay on Android, having put in the time and energy getting everything that I wanted set-up just right. This was to be the phone-owning experience of my life. The One would be weighed down with the knowledge of all the ages compressed in zen-like perfection into a sliver of weighty gun-metal brushed aluminium.

So I counted down the days until my contract was up, donned my serious person work togs and strode confidently into the local cellular outlet. I don’t quite remember, milady, the exact words I used at the time but I hope that it was something along the lines of “I’m going with HTC, the Taiwanese giants of modern global technology. Bring me the new One.”

Fifteen minutes later I was out of there with my tail between my legs, clutching my brand new cellphone. The Samsung Galaxy S4. Why, I hear you ask? Because HTC was no longer available. Anywhere in the whole country. It disinvested faster than Barclays Bank during apartheid. Gone in sixty seconds.

Fast forward to mid-April 2014 and a full product cycle has come and gone. Samsung launching the Galaxy S5 with an avalanche of promotions on all fronts. In a nod to the importance of the South African market, Samsung has launched its flagship S5 in South Africa on the same day it has launched globally. Full-page ads, special offers, tweets, competitions….the whole nine yards, just like you would expect from a global communications behemoth.

On the other hand, HTC has barely raised a finger to announce its return to the country’s shores.

The HTC South Africa Facebook page and Twitter feed was last updated in November 2013. The website for the Middle-East and Africa is in Arabic with no mention of South Africa. Desperate for info, I embark on a Google search which leads to an article that identifies a company that will be importing HTC.

Having no luck finding its web presence, I resort to an embarrassing anonymous Facebook message to a family man / representative for HTC who, in all likelihood, will never even see that message. Finally, The HTC Middle East and Africa Twitter feed helpfully offers an email address for its South African representative, but at the time of writing there has been no response there.

Is this really how HTC is coming back to South Africa? No web presence, no brand agency or spokespeople lined up, no explanation for why we were left at the altar all those months ago. TechCentral reported in November 2013 that ‘HTC’s newly appointed distributor, Ingram Micro Mobility, has admitted that the smartphone brand has to go “back to basics” in South Africa after HTC failed to live up to promises to expand its presence here in 2013.’

Six months later and this global brand is once again failing miserably to even reach out to the South African consumer with what is obviously a glorious piece of hardware.
What’s going on? It’s no secret that HTC has struggled with its messaging internationally and hasn’t been able to take ownership of a particular mindset amongst consumers. In its latest brand relaunch, Robert Downey Jr was enlisted to make a hip but baffling TV commercial that is technically spectacular and oh so clever but leaves you feeling like you missed the point somewhere along the line.

Creating world-class products does not automatically mean you have created a world-class brand. That’s a whole different ballgame.

But the sense of a drifting, homeless brand in South Africa is overwhelming. Why will no-one take charge and really get behind a phone that the New York Times says “inspires something like love with its gorgeous design, underdog story and elegant simplicity”?

After days of increasing desperation, finally an email breaks through the cobwebs which have spun over my rusting inbox! Richard Boorman, Head of Corporate Communications for Vodacom could comment: “the good news is that we [Vodacom] will be stocking the One M8. Also good news that our two-year warranty applies to HTC products so the repairs wouldn’t be an issue,” he wrote. My heart leaped, it is coming.

“I’m stumped when it comes to commenting on the relative lack of success in SA,” he added.

“Me too” I thought.

“Perhaps with such an expensive purchase, people naturally gravitate toward some of the better known brands?”

This is it in a nutshell. The branding and the loyalty, the history, simply isn’t here for HTC. If a campaign is coming, it better be pretty spectacular if it is to compete for hearts and minds with the sophistication of Apple and Samsung marketing right now. HTC needs to mend some broken South African fences before most people will consider embracing them again.

Boornman concluded his mail by admitting that “I really don’t have much on this one” and I thought to myself “I know how you feel”.



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