Profile: Vladimir Malugin, EMEA marketing director at HTC

Vladimir Malugin, EMEA marketing director at HTC, has an ostensibly simple aim - to take smartphones to the masses. Interview by Ed Owen.

Vladimir Malugin, EMEA marketing director at HTC
Vladimir Malugin, EMEA marketing director at HTC

HTC could become a textbook case study in marketing. Little-known for the best part of its existence, it has been creating handsets for mobile brands such as Orange and T-Mobile since its inception in Taiwan in 1997 as a white-label manufacturer.

Having established its own brand in 2008, however, it has grown at a phenomenal rate since, taking a key role in the smartphone revolution. Playing on its popularity with the tech crowd, at the CES technology trade show in Las Vegas earlier this month, a giant building-banner carried the simple message: 'It's not your dream phone, it's the one after that'. This approach is typical of HTC's 'Quietly brilliant' positioning, subtly contrasting its offering with the hype surrounding Apple's iPhone.

At HTC's European headquarters in Slough, the company proudly displays its many awards in a vast glass cabinet that is unmissable on the way to the boardroom.

Vladimir Malugin, as his name suggests, is Russian. He speaks softly in perfect, idiomatic English, with only the slightest accent, as he describes the HTC Desire as the most garlanded smartphone ever produced.

The goal set for HTC's 36-year-old EMEA marketing director, when he was appointed in 2009, was ambitious but simple: to make HTC a top-three smartphone brand by 2012.

'I'm wondering if (HTC chief executive) Peter Chou will now revise this,' ponders Malugin, pointing out that the company ranks itself as the number-two brand in the EMEA region. Brand awareness has rocketed to 60%, from zero a few years ago, he claims. While the figures sound impressive, the latest data from The Nielsen Company - albeit referring to the second quarter of 2010 - puts HTC fourth in the UK smartphone market, behind Nokia, Apple and RIM's BlackBerry.

When HTC was founded, its proposition immediately struck a chord with brands, adds Malugin, as it could swiftly provide the off-the-shelf products that network operators wanted.

Surely, though, it was a daunting switch to become a consumer brand as it made HTC's erstwhile customers the competition? Not so, says Malugin. The operators were happy to offer HTC-branded handsets in their stores and even helped with marketing, as shop staff reassured consumers that the handsets were already tried and tested.

HTC hit the shelves in 2008 on the back of a series of firsts, including the first Google Android phone, the HTC Dream. While it remains the leading manufacturer of Android devices, HTC also has a strong association with Microsoft, for which it produced the Windows Phone 7. Malugin has big ambitions for the latter, 1.5m of which had been shipped by the end of 2010.

HTC's expansion is only just beginning. Malugin says smartphone sales are growing at 60%-80% a year, despite the number of subscriptions remaining level. 'At the same time, we have grown 130% globally, and close to 200% in EMEA this year,' he adds.

This will be a key year for HTC as rivals such as Sony Ericsson and Motorola relaunch. To achieve the standing it craves, it also has to deal with Apple, which, for many, defines smartphones.

Thinking 'small' is the focus of HTC's strategy, says Malugin. One thread of this is attempting to differentiate itself by shifting away from targeting early adopters. Instead, it is focusing on the mass market by pushing 'HTC Sense', a range of seemingly minor features including the ability to remotely lock a phone, and to stop it ringing by the simple act of turning it over.

'We're targeting those who do not necessarily look at speed or resolution, but want a bright image and fast browsing without thinking about technology,' says Malugin.

The 'Here's an idea' campaign, launched last October, will continue this year. Although TV ads are planned, its activity will comprise a string of smaller, targeted campaigns to show off HTC Sense features. One recent example was a Facebook campaign for the HTC Wildfire handset. The push asked people to suggest unusual projects they could undertake if they were to gather all their Facebook friends in one place for the day. The winners created the world's biggest toast mosaic, gaining headlines and a place in Guinness World Records.

Malugin says strong marketing is vital for the next stage in HTC's growth. 'Marketers always complain there is lack of budget and understanding from global leadership, but we have budgets and commitment.'

Mirroring his company, Malugin himself has had a remarkable journey, and seems the kind of entrepreneurial prodigy who might compete in The Apprentice.

'I started out at the age of 14 as a part-time interpreter. That then grew into an interpreting and software localisation business, which eventually became a top-three company in its field in Russia,' he says.

Malugin then set up an internet consultancy before deciding to do an MBA at Cambridge. There he came across Antenova, a start-up about to set up in mobile chipsets, where he spent three years, closing its first deals with Intel, Samsung and Motorola.

With understated ambition, he moved into the corporate world - first at Kodak, then Polaroid. Both brands were undergoing major transitions, a challenge that appears to have become a hallmark of Malugin's career.

His route to HTC was itself a test of marketing acumen. He initially replied to a press ad for a marketing director at an unnamed company. 'I thought: "This is me, I have done this before",' says Malugin. 'So I called the headhunter, who said unequivocally I was not the person for the job. They were looking for someone from a handset vendor, who had been in the mobile industry for longer than my three years and had held a marketing title for longer than I had.'

So began a single-minded campaign to market himself - an effort that redoubled when he learned HTC was the company.

He targeted key individuals, right up to Chou. 'The opening question was: "You are really a sales guy - why do you think you are the best candidate?" My response was always that it comes down to the brand, the product and consumer,' says Malugin.

'I think I have managed to convince (my) bosses so far; they see that I have a good combination of marketing, sales and general-management skills, which is good for the transformation HTC is going through.'

One key risk HTC faces is that of a competitor upping its game and coming to market with a killer Android handset that trumps its offering.

Equally, with the marketing muscle of Apple to contend with, HTC must continue to build on its early momentum - especially if it is truly to become a textbook example of how to grow a brand rapidly.


1994-2000: Managing director/partner, Aardvaark Enterprises (Russian translation firm)

2001-2004: Business development and sales director, Antenova

2004-2007: European director of business development/head of online, rising to market development director EAMER, Eastman Kodak

2007-2009: General manager, distributor and emerging markets, rising to vice-president, head of products, marketing and services, Polaroid

2009-present: EMEA marketing director, HTC


Family: Married with three children

Lives: Hampstead

Hobbies: Keen skier

Music: From Elton John, Duran Duran and Eminem to Verdi and Wagner (the German composer, not the X Factor contestant).