Qualcomm sells chips that go inside TVs, BMW dashboards, game consoles, and, most important, one-third of smartphones sold. It did $19 billion in business last year, and its stock market value has surpassed that of rival Intel.
But for all Qualcomm’s success, it’s like the Rodney Dangerfield of chip companies: it gets no respect. Intel’s name is still synonymous with microprocessors. Even in San Diego, Qualcomm’s hometown, the average person knows the company because its name is on the football stadium, not because its products run the all-important computers in their pockets.
Qualcomm’s chief marketing officer, Anand Chandrasekher, is frank about the company’s name recognition: “It’s not great.”
While it may not seem to matter whose chips are in your device, Qualcomm is trying hard to become a household name. With TV ads, noisy promotions, prizes, and YouTube videos, the company has been stepping up efforts to promote its Snapdragon line of chips for smartphones directly to consumers.
Chandrasekher, who worked at Intel for 18 years and took the Qualcomm job last August, wants to make sure phone shoppers recognize the Qualcomm name. “That’s why I’m here,” he says. “We’re a $100-billion-plus company, in terms of market cap, that nobody knows.”
Qualcomm executives began expanding the consumer marketing program in 2011, when the company realized that gadget fans were comparing specifications for smartphones as if they were PCs or even cars. If Qualcomm can get consumers to prefer phones with its chips, it could charge smartphone manufacturers higher prices or more easily fight its way into other markets, like desktop computers.
Qualcomm’s efforts echo the famous “Intel Inside” campaign launched during the 1990s, which saw the rival chip maker slap its logo onto nearly every PC. Intel ended up with a brand as well recognized as Disney or Coca-Cola.
Although Intel’s campaign was an inspiration, Chandrasekher says the mobile phone market is different from the market for PCs—it moves faster and requires more players working together to make a single device, and the phones don’t have room for physical stickers.
Instead, Qualcomm has tried to get its name in front of consumers in other ways, starting in San Diego. Two years ago, it convinced the city to change all the signs at Qualcomm Stadium to “Snapdragon by Qualcomm” during 10 days in December 2011, when several nationally broadcast football games were played. The move was an advertising coup, even though the city’s attorney later called the name change illegal.
Qualcomm won’t say how much it spends on marketing. But it has been working with four branding, PR, and advertising firms to developing movie theater and TV ads that will feature its new dragon mascot. In its ads, Qualcomm has tried to entertain, but it also has to make technical arguments about why its chips are better. Last year, Qualcomm engineers sat down to help brainstorm what Chandrasekher calls “viral videos” of quirky experiments involving melting butter and praying mantises—the idea being to illustrate the thermal and power efficiency of Snapdragon chips. Those videos have gotten two million views on YouTube, and some smartphone makers have begun featuring Qualcomm’s chips in their own advertisements.
There have been missteps. To say that Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs’s keynote at the annual Consumer Electronics Show this January came across as trying too hard would be putting it lightly. There were appearances by Big Bird, Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, rock bands, and awkwardly scripted actors playing stereotyped young people. Technology bloggers present at the Las Vegas show offered reviews that ranged from “insane” to “all over the place.”
Chandrasekher admits the CES opening skit was “not as well received” as he had hoped. “We’ve been learning. You learn and move on,” he says. “People are starting to care about what’s inside their phones. We’ve invented a lot of these technologies and we feel, maybe rightly, that we should get some credit for it.”