Mark Viken may be the marketing VP for Hisense USA, a relatively new TV badge to these shores, but he’s no newcomer to the business.
A former brand and product marketing VP at Sharp, he also served as marketing VP at market research firm MarketSource, and before that honed his industry skills for 25 years at Sony, were he left as marketing and new business development senior VP.
TWICE recently caught up with Viken as Hisense’s first step-up 4K ULED TVs began shipping and the ink on a FIFA World Cup sponsorship deal was still drying, representing the next phase in the Chinese manufacturer’s U.S. marketplace plans.
TWICE: In what ways is the U.S. market unique?
The U.S. is one of the more challenging markets in that you have a concentrated group of very large and demanding retailers. Our chairman (Zhou Houjian) says you want to do business with the toughest customer because it makes you a better company. So the U.S. is both a challenge and a positive.
Different markets also have different tastes when it comes to the display image. U.S. consumers tend to want a more accuracy-based color gamut, while other markets prefer it when certain tints are highlighted.
TWICE: How do you tailor TVs to a region?
We have a team of 40 R&D people in Atlanta that work very closely with the engineers in China that do the platform design work and develop the modules.
Hisense is the “official TV” of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
TWICE: Hisense got its foot in the door here with well-made and aggressively priced TVs. What’s the next step?
It starts with great products. We began with value products, 4K TVs in the 43-to 50-inch range that had great sell-through. Blind tests by Wakefield Research showed that the picture quality is as good as Samsung’s. We bought comparable Samsung and Vizio TVs from stores and asked consumers to compare them side-by-side-by-side with our H8 model. They thought it was on par with the Samsung.
Now we’re moving toward more premium 4K products in the 55-to 65-inch range. We want to grow the premium business and are working very hard on premium products. The regional retailers are extremely important to us in this segment, and we had meetings with big retailers every day [in May].
TWICE: What’s the latest in that tier?
Our new H9 and H10 series are our first ULED models. They feature quantum dot technology, wide color gamut, Dolby Vision, and are UHD qualified. Blind tests by Wakefield Research showed that the picture quality is as good as Samsung’s. We bought comparable Samsung and Vizio TVs from stores and asked consumers to compare them side-by-side-by-side with our H8 model. They thought it was on par with the Samsung.
TWICE: Why should retailers buy in?
We have programs to support the retailers. We want them to be profitable – and also make some money for ourselves too. We also have a growing field team of 14 trainers that visit stores and are there for major training events.
TWICE: What about customer support?
We have 20 folks in Atlanta that are dedicated tier-one problem solvers. We don’t outsource customer service. We also monitor social media, including Facebook and Twitter, and customer comments on BestBuy.com and Walmart.com. If someone needs help, we’re on it.
TWICE: We understand there may be some dedicated Hisense display space coming to Best Buy stores.
It’ll happen. We’re looking at one to four models.
TWICE: How are you getting the word out about the brand?
We have a multi-pronged program built around social media, digital advertising and aggressive public relations. We’re also pushing for reviews on retail websites, where we tend to earn high customer scores.
On a macro level, we’re building brand awareness and affinity by sponsoring the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Sports is important to our company and to the consumer. There are a lot of cities here where soccer is extremely important. New York, Miami, Houston, LA, Montreal, Toronto … the fans are off the charts.
We also sponsored NASCAR’s Xfinity Series Hisense 4K TV 300 gaming shootout last month in Charlotte. NASCAR matches the performance of our TVs, and e-sports is an up and coming hobby; it’s growing. You’ll find 500,000 fans at any given moment on Twitch [the online gaming platform], and our Hisense Dual Threat Challenge garnered 10 million impressions.
TWICE: What’s the status of your Sharp-branded TV business?
We’re very pleased with the Sharp license. The deal lasts five years in total. The first year we did well, and now in the second year we already doubled what we did in the first. We launched a website last year, showed new products at CES in January, and continue supporting the brand with digital, social, PR and customer reviews.
Related:Who's Brand Is It Anyway? Behind The Hisense/Sharp Skirmish
TWICE: How does the Sharp customer differ from the Hisense customer?
The Sharp customer is a little older, early 40s to age 50, with a positive brand image of Sharp. The Hisense target customer is younger, mid-30s to 40 years old, and up and coming, with a millennial mindset.
TWICE: What other product categories will you be bringing over?
We’ve been selling portable air conditioners and dehumidifiers at Lowe’s. We also just launched a French door refrigerator.
TWICE: What about mobile? We know Hisense also makes phones.
We’re doing business in Mexico with AT&T and it doubled our expectations. The U.S. market is a little more challenging, although it’s an important category and we want to get in it here.
We’re also looking at smart integration and IoT kind of products, and recently placed a Wi-Fi-enabled room AC at Lowe’s.
TWICE: There’s been quite a bit of disruption so far this year on the U.S. retail landscape. What’s your take on the future of traditional retail?
People are becoming more and more comfortable purchasing premium products online and 80 percent of CE purchases are researched on the web first. Combine that with some overstoring and you have a little bit of realignment.
TWICE: But retailers are working toward omnichannel marketing, which consumers like.
There will always be brick-and-mortar stores, though, especially for the TV and appliance businesses, because people want to see the picture quality, and they want to see and try the appliance.
There’s a bifurcation of the market — people are comfortable buying a 40-inch TV online, but when it comes to a home-theater system you want in-store help, support and advice.