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QUALCOMM Unleashes the Dragon

by Saurabh Bajaj and amit Rai

Toward the end of 2012, marketing managers at Qualcomm, the world’s leading mobile chipset provider by revenue, were reevaluating the progress they had made in a new business-toconsumer marketing initiative. Qualcomm had gone to great lengths to market its Snapdragon system on a chip (SoC) technology. The company was hoping to create a signature product in the eyes of mobile users, who for the most part did not know the role Qualcomm technology played in their devices. In December of 2011, the San Diego-based company had gone so far as to re-christen its namesake downtown football stadium Snapdragon Stadium for 10 days.

In many ways, Qualcomm was exploring uncharted territory. For years, the company had been content to quietly dominate the mobile chipset market without everyday consumers knowing it. By instead marketing its technically sophisticated products to knowledgeable mobile device manufacturers, Qualcomm had grown from a seven-person startup in 1985 to a telecommunications giant with more than 20,000 employees in 2012.1

Historically, Qualcomm processors had led in market share among OEM (original equipment manufacturers) mobile device makers such as Samsung, Google, HTC, Nokia, and Blackberry in the high-end mobile devices market, especially smartphones. It had done so by creating an institutional emphasis on new product development and a stellar reputation among its manufacturing customers, often at the expense of consumer marketing.

As the consumer landscape changed during the first decade of the new millennium, management began to rethink this approach. It was not clear that Qualcomm’s traditional focus on business-to-business (B2B) marketing could help it address two trends that were likely to impact the company’s future.

First, Qualcomm faced increasing global competition from other mobile processor vendors such as Broadcom, Samsung, MediaTek, and Spreadtrum. In fact, if Qualcomm wanted to sustain sales growth, it had to increase penetration of low-end smartphone markets in emerging economies such as China.2 Qualcomm management now recognized that branding, diff erentiation, and recognition among global smartphone users would be a key factor in implementing that strategy.

Second, because of declining PC sales growth and increasing adoption of tablets, Intel’s entry in the high-end mobile chipset market was now imminent.3 Meanwhile, the emergence of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube had given rise to the need for Qualcomm to communicate with its end consumers. Failure to exploit this new channel could exacerbate Intel’s threat.

Despite all the company’s technological achievements within the $150 billion smartphone market,4 Qualcomm lacked recognition, and the average smartphone user was not aware of Qualcomm. In his own words, Qualcomm’s chief marketing officer, Anand Chandrasekher, considered his company a “$100-billion-plus company in terms of market cap that nobody knows.”5

Management thus faced several questions: Was brand recognition by end consumers critical to Qualcomm’s future? If so, how would Qualcomm achieve this recognition? How would Qualcomm educate end consumers about the contributions its product made to their mobile devices? The company had begun a preliminary exploration of these questions through the marketing of its proprietary mobile device application processor, Snapdragon. Perhaps those initial efforts would yield some insight as to how to proceed.


Headquartered in San Diego, Calif., Qualcomm was in 2012 the global leader in digital wireless telecommunication products and services. That year, the company had more than 20,000 employees across 157 locations worldwide and net revenue of $19.12 billion.

The company began in July of 1985, when MIT alumnus and UC San Diego professor Irwin Jacobs and USC and MIT alumnus Andrew Viterbi, together with five others – Franklin Antonio, Adelia Coffman, Andrew Cohen, Klein Gilhousen, and Harvey White – founded Qualcomm, short for “Quality communications.”6

Qualcomm had an early success with its commercial product OmniTRACS, a satellite-based commercial mobile system for the transportation industry. Qualcomm would later gain a major industry foothold by creating a new industry standard. Three months after the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) endorsed a digital technology called time division multiple access (TDMA) in 1989, Qualcomm introduced a new digital technology, code division multiple access (CDMA). CDMA divided digital signals into diff erent “languages” so that multiple devices could communicate with one another simultaneously. CDMA offered better call quality and more capacity potential than GSM (global system for mobiles), the existing technology. At the time of its introduction, industry experts were effusive, saying things like, “CDMA violated the laws of physics.”7 CDMA would later play a large role in meeting increasing demand for cellular mobile bandwidth and would lay the platform for a global adoption of mobile devices.

In the following decades, Qualcomm developed new technologies that were readily adopted as industry standards: CDMA 2000, WCDMA (wideband code division multiple access), and LTE (long-term evolution, marketed as 4G LTE, is a standard for wireless communication of high-speed data for mobile phones and data terminals) all evolved from CDMA architecture.

The Snapdragon Processor

A mobile application processor is a system on a chip that supports applications running on a mobile operating system. Qualcomm built the entire SoC architecture into its Snapdragon S4 processor, which integrated all essential electronics components – including memory management, graphics processing, and multimedia decoding – onto a single chip.

By the end of 2012, the Qualcomm Snapdragon mobile processor powered one-third of smartphones worldwide. The Snapdragon processor integrated the modem, a 3-D graphics processor, a CPU, GPS capability, 3G and 4G LTE connectivity, and HD video capabilities. Snapdragon-enabled smartphones were lighter and thinner than their contemporaries. Even Qualcomm’s most powerful competitors could not replicate the company’s granular control over each part of the chip.

This tight integration on a very small chip resulted in lesser use of space and energy consumption and thus led to higher power efficiency. Tighter integration also meant that components could communicate with each other more efficiently and quickly. With this competitive advantage, Qualcomm topped the mobile market share in 20118 and led in Android and Windows Phone hardware support in 2012.9

The Snapdragon processor had emerged as one of the best mobile processors in several performance attributes measured by industry experts. Some of the well-known attributes of OEMs were the battery life, speed performance, and graphics performance.

The first Snapdragon mobile processor was launched in 2008. By 2012, Qualcomm enjoyed a leading global position in smartphone market share, thanks in part to Snapdragon. The company led the cellular baseband market with 51 percent revenue share in the first half of 2012 on the strength of its leading position in CDMA, WCDMA and LTE basebands.

Qualcomm’s LTE basebands had been adopted by almost all top-tier handset manufacturers, and global capital spending supporting LTE technology adoption was projected to be $24.3 billion in 2013, almost triple the $8.7 billion spent in 2012.10 Despite all that success, Qualcomm had not made significant headway in the minds of end consumers.

The Shift to Consumer Marketing

In 2012, it was widely believed that operating behind the scenes in a consumer technology business was less lucrative than selling to consumers directly.11 During the 1990s PC chipmaker Intel had been one of the first to perceive this opportunity, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in its “Intel Inside” campaign to increase market share and educate the public about Intel’s role in powering computers. Intel created catchy advertisements and put “Intel Inside” stickers on each device.12 Having introduced Intel to the millions of consumers who were technologically unaware, the Intel Inside campaign was viewed as a technology industry success story.13

In contrast with Intel, Qualcomm did not command significant consumer awareness. In 2012, many mobile consumers were still unfamiliar with the technical details that made a Snapdragon chip superior to its competitors.14 Qualcomm had historically focused on B2B marketing, directing a technical pitch to OEMs and other technology partners. However, by promoting its brand among smartphone consumers, Qualcomm could directly impact end-consumer demand, which in turn would influence demand among network operators such as AT&T and T-Mobile. Those operators would then demand more Qualcomm-enabled smartphones from manufacturers. This could ensure Qualcomm higher bargaining power when selling processors to the OEMs.15

B2C Marketing Efforts

To exploit this opportunity, Qualcomm significantly expanded its business-to-consumer (B2C) marketing efforts. This approach, called “pull based marketing,” exploited a ripple effect: End consumers’ demand created a pull for smartphones that would extend all the way up the supply chain to Qualcomm’s high-quality chipsets.

In contrast with B2C marketing, Qualcomm’s management considered the company’s B2B marketing a significant strength. B2B marketing consisted of partnering with, educating, and engaging wireless carriers. As they were the primary buyers of the smartphones from the OEMs, it became important to work with carriers to educate them about Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor. One of the reasons for its success in B2B marketing was that business-side customers (partners like network carriers and smartphone OEMs) were sophisticated enough to understand and value the technical superiority of Qualcomm’s products.

However, Qualcomm processors’ superior attributes were not always the deciding factor for business-side customers. In those cases, customers would often switch to non-Qualcomm processors. For example, in April of 2013 Samsung launched its Galaxy S4 smartphone. In India, S4 was powered by Exynos 5 Octa, Samsung’s own 8-core processor. Because emerging countries were still transitioning to the third-generation (3G) network, Samsung decided to use its own processor without 4G LTE capability, focusing on the ‘number of cores’ as a selling point to the end consumer. In contrast, the S4 series in the developed world with 4G LTE capability was powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S600 chip. Samsung recognized the technical superiority of Qualcomm’s products, but only used Snapdragon to power its devices when the technology was required to please end consumers.

Branding Snapdragon

In 2012, Qualcomm hired Intel executive Anand Chandrasekher as its new chief marketing officer. With this leadership change, Qualcomm aimed to enhance consumer awareness of the Snapdragon brand.16 One of Qualcomm’s first initiatives under Chandrasekher was a keynote appearance at the industry’s marquee event, the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs kicked off the show by presenting Qualcomm’s new “Born Mobile” theme.

Qualcomm structured its B2C marketing and branding strategy into three groups: owned, earned, and paid. With its “owned” strategy, Qualcomm focused on creating and distributing content to its consumers through various social media outlets. The purpose of this strategy was to create simple messages and videos to explain difficult concepts such as the Snapdragon chipset’s value proposition and technical superiority. Qualcomm’s “earned” strategy paid attention to the strong analyst and PR relations that it had created over time.

The company also created TV ads, promotions, and YouTube videos, and it also ramped up branding efforts by engaging with four branding, PR, and advertising firms. But Qualcomm management approached its “paid” strategy with caution. The company unveiled its “A dragon is coming” commercial in January of 2013 to create a new icon for the Snapdragon brand.17 The new dragon mascot was central in this branding, and it personified the processor’s upgrades. Chandrasekher had pledged to boost the marketing and advertising to build Snapdragon as a consumer brand. Promotional videos for Snapdragon received 2 million views on YouTube and Facebook in 2012.

The company also created TV ads, promotions, and YouTube videos, and it also ramped up branding efforts by engaging with four branding, PR, and advertising firms. But Qualcomm management approached its “paid” strategy with caution. The company unveiled its “A dragon is coming” commercial in January of 2013 to create a new icon for the Snapdragon brand.17 The new dragon mascot was central in this branding, and it personified the processor’s upgrades. Chandrasekher had pledged to boost the marketing and advertising to build Snapdragon as a consumer brand. Promotional videos for Snapdragon received 2 million views on YouTube and Facebook in 2012.

Changing Global Demand

Following decades of success built on Qualcomm’s standardsetting CDMA technologies, the industry had begun to address the question of how to bring mobile access to rapidly growing emerging markets. From 1990 to 2011, worldwide mobile phone subscriptions had grown from 12.4 million to more than 6 billion.

Globally, end users bought almost 426 million smartphones in the first quarter of 2013, and the Asia/Pacific region accounted for roughly 53 percent of total global sales. While global smartphone sales growth was 0.7 percent year over year, Asia/ Pacific regional smartphone sales growth had been 6.5 percent.18 China led this trend with a 7.5 percent growth rate. These trends suggested that as smartphone sales reached a saturation point in the Western world, emerging markets remained an important source of growth.19

In the third quarter of 2012, China had surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest smartphone market. However, most of China’s smartphone sales were driven by low-cost phones that often lacked the capability to work with the fastest 3G (third generation) network. This regional threat of low technology adoption meant opportunities for local players like MediaTek. Demand for low-cost smartphones rose for two reasons. First, Chinese providers did not subsidize end-user adoption of high-end smart phones, as U.S. providers did. Second, lower per-capita income in emerging countries made affordability a concern. Qualcomm stood to benefit if it could find a way to engage the price-sensitive consumers in rapidly growing markets such as China.

After having dominated the high-end smartphone market, Qualcomm was now targeting the emerging markets by building cheaper entry-level chipsets for smartphones.20 Now, it faced head-on competition with the local low-end specialist, MediaTek. MediaTek had shipped 500 million chips in 2012, an indication of the company’s rising prominence. MediaTek enabled a market for low-end smartphones by providing small manufacturers “turnkey” software solutions and reference designs for easy mobile phone manufacturing. Companies with workforces as small as 10 people could now manufacture lowend smartphones using this package. The low-end smartphone market posed the challenge of price-sensitive customers demanding high-quality smartphones at a lower price.

In many emerging markets, carriers did not sell smartphones directly to their consumers. Instead, the consumers chose the smartphone and carrier separately. Thus, consumers were sensitive to marketing and messaging strategy, and they did care about device components. By 2013, emerging-market customers were professing knowledge of specific chipset attributes such as number of cores, and Qualcomm was looking for a way to reach these message-sensitive consumers.

Social Media

The early and mid-2000s had witnessed widespread adoption of social media networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. In addition to connecting billions of end users to one another, social media provided a platform for companies to directly communicate their brand messages and to reach out to a wider base of potential customers. Social media was increasingly seen as a way to make brands “real” and personal to consumers. By 2011, U.S. consumers and gadget enthusiasts had begun to compare smartphone specifications on public forums. People had started paying attention to what was in their mobile devices – they checked reviews on CNET and read articles from TechCrunch, Engadget, and various tech bloggers who had a great influence on tech consumers. There was reason to believe that these sources played a significant role in customers’ decisions when buying smartphones.21

Communication from brands to the consumers was no longer a one-way street. Consumers and technology experts had begun voicing their opinions about companies and their products on social media channels. It had become important for brands to effectively communicate via social media outlets and interact with consumers. Although this trend was clear, it was unclear how a traditionally B2B brand like Qualcomm would negotiate a transition to B2C marketing.

Qualcomm’s strength traditionally lay in its ability to innovate on the smartphone platform with cutting-edge chipsets. The company normally spent 20 percent of revenue on research and development; Qualcomm approached paid marketing with much more care and skepticism. It had highlighted markets that it wanted to focus on and then created awareness among users in those markets.

Snapdragon Inside: Marketing Moving Forward

Qualcomm recognized the importance of diff erentiating its products in the eyes of end consumers. The company had become convinced that everyday smartphone users could understand terms like processor, GPU, and 1080p HD as well as recognize the importance of these components.

Qualcomm perceived that consumers vaguely understood that complicated technologies made smartphones cooler and better. Now Qualcomm faced a decision: How could a technically minded company with a longstanding B2B marketing strategy appeal to the mass market in the U.S. and in emerging countries? How could Qualcomm be successful in communicating the value proposition of a technically complicated product that an end consumer could not see and feel?

Qualcomm had begun investing in consumer marketing strategies both in Western and emerging countries to create awareness among high-end and low-end smartphone users.

Also, in the mobile device industry, there were multiple operating system leaders – companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft. OEMs such as Samsung, Motorola, HTC, Blackberry, and Nokia manufactured and assembled the complete smartphone. Chip manufacturers such as Qualcomm, Broadcom, and MediaTek made the chips. Considering the intricate supply chain, would another branding effort confuse consumers? These were the important questions that needed to be answered if “the dragon” was to continue its flight.

Saurabh Bajaj (Rady MBA, 2013) focuses on innovation, product management, and strategy for the high-tech industry. His goal is to build high-impact products and businesses that create great value and utility for consumers and industries alike.

Amit Rai (Rady MBA, 2013) has a background in IT and financial services. He concentrates on entrepreneurship and technology.


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