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Samsung's Bet on Being 'Culturally Relevant' is Paying Off

Brand is Thriving in Smartphones, TVs and Appliances

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Nine months after Pepsi veteran Ralph Santana arrived at Samsung as CMO, he told attendees at Ad Age 's Digital Conference in April that his goal was to make the consumer-electronics giant a "culturally relevant" brand, but it won't happen within "conventional marketing frameworks."

Ralph Santana at Ad Age 's Digital Conference. Credit: Rob Tannenbaum

Mr. Santana, who heads marketing for Samsung Electronics America and was joined in June by Samsung Mobile CMO Todd Pendleton after a long career in marketing at Nike , has been as good as his word.

Samsung has been on a growth trajectory for a decade, when it decided to drop its suite of lesser-known brands to focus on the Samsung brand and create better-quality, innovative products with high-end design. In 2001 it ranked No. 42 on Interbrand's annual list of top global brands; in 2011 it was No. 17, its brand value almost quadrupling to $6.4 billion.

So, then, what makes this year so special? Samsung is about to enter another transition and is positioning itself for the future.

Its Galaxy smartphone has sold more than 30 million, despite Samsung only entering the smartphone market a year ago. In the third quarter, it beat Apple in global smartphone sales, grabbing 24% of the market to Apple's 15%, according to Strategy Analytics. It's now the No. 2 overall smartphone seller by volume.

Not only is Samsung rocking smartphone sales as a newbie while maintaining flat-panel TV dominance, it also debuted its Galaxy tablet to rave reviews and solid sales (shipping two million units within two months of launch).

It has aggressively raised its laptop efforts with the high-end Series 9, compared favorably by reviewers to the Macbook Air. And it entered the all-in-one touch-screen home desktop market last month with the Series 7, an interesting gambit considering the wavering of all-in-one touchscreen leader HP about its role in the PC market.

Even Samsung's home-appliance division is burgeoning -- the company expects to triple sales in the unit from $10 billion in 2010 to $30 billion in 2015.

A lot of its efforts have been accomplished by the unconventional marketing Mr. Santana promised. For example, the company partnered with quirky new-age band OK Go -- famous for its Treadmill Dance viral video -- to promote the Samsung NX100 camera. (The band created a video for its song "Last Leaf" using the NX100 digital camera, involving frame-by -frame animation, lasers, and lots and lots of toast.)

And Samsung bowed the first LCD refrigerator that comes preloaded with apps, including one for cooking and recipes. The deal, with Epicurious, was launched with actress and singer Vanessa Williams.

Samsung, which works with agencies of record Cheil Worldwide and Leo Burnett and tapped Via Agency for its Galaxy Tab launch, is also planning an innovative pending Olympics project. The Samsung U.S. Olympic Genome Project will pair social media with athletes and fans to give both a new way to connect around the London 2012 Olympics.

Meanwhile, its just-announced Samsung Nation social loyalty program is a first for the consumer-electronics industry.

More tried-and-true efforts include a well-received Smart TV campaign that featured a silent feuding couple browsing broad entertainment choices, including an array of Samsung's content deals with Hulu, Comcast, Adobe, Time Warner and Dreamworks.

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