The chip maker got out of the consumer device business long ago. It's now realizing that it can no longer afford to take a backseat, even if it doesn't sell directly to mobile users.
FORTUNE — Anyone who witnessed Qualcomm’s opening keynote at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas knows that the mobile chipmaker is trying to get some mass market attention. What else could explain guest appearances by Big Bird, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Maroon 5? Turns out, that was just Qualcomm’s opening gambit in a major effort to become more widely recognized. Under the direction of its new CMO, Anand Chandrasekher, the San Diego-based company is spending more than ever on a marketing campaign that aims to get consumers to finally care about the teeny-tiny chips inside of their phones and tablets.
Qualcomm QCOM hopes to achieve this goal through a series of viral videos — and, of course, more traditional ads like this one. On Tuesday the company is releasing its latest online video, which it says is supposed to show how mobility makes users’ lives better. The video depicts a bus stop that has been outfitted with a series of posters, with captions like “IN A HURRY?” and “BORED?” Each poster features a URL. When commuters waiting for the bus tap the URL into their phones, it activates a related gag. For example, a young bearded guy at the bus stop sees a poster that says “SEEN IT ALL?” and enters the corresponding URL into his phone. Moments later, a pack of huskies trot by pulling a sled on wheels. (Keep watching, and you’ll also see a clown, an accordionist, and a dude on stilts.)
Qualcomm’s senior director of global marketing, Liya Sharif, says all of the shots in the two-minute-long clip were candid and taken from hidden cameras — meaning that the commuters in the video were real-life people waiting for the bus, not actors. But despite the massive success some companies have had with viral video campaigns, coming across as authentic and humorous via YouTube GOOG is no slam dunk, no matter how many cats are involved. Qualcomm’s challenge is that, while its chips power many of the world’s top-selling phones and tablets, its brand doesn’t have much clout among everyday consumers. “We’re a $100 billion company that’s almost unheard of,” CMO Chandrasekher told Fortune in a recent interview.
Chandrasekher spent about 25 years at rival Intel INTC . He held many positions while at the company, but his most recent gig was running Intel’s mobile group. “As mobility has become the center of the computing industry and the consumer electronics industry, there’s a fairly big target on the mobile semiconductor space,” he says. “And as you look at the companies interested in making inroads into that space, many of those companies are reasonably sophisticated from a marketing standpoint — it would be silly for us to ignore what marketing can do.”
Still, Chandrasekher says Qualcomm has no plans to match the amount of money his former employer poured into its successful Intel Inside campaign. (It couldn’t even if it wanted to — Qualcomm now has a larger market cap than Intel, but the Santa Clara, Calif.-based semiconductor giant still rakes in nearly twice the net income earned by Qualcomm.) At the same time, it’s clear Qualcomm feels the heightened competition as well as the need to start investing more seriously in its image. Chandrasekher won’t disclose how large of a marketing budget he’s now working with but says there’s “huge growth this year versus last year.”
Qualcomm has a long way to go. A recent ranking of the best global brands by brand consultancy Interbrand didn’t even include Qualcomm. Despite its challenges in mobile, Intel was no. 8 on the list. Rival Nvidia NVDA was also missing from the list, though it is widely recognized among gamers and recently announced a gaming device that shows off what its technology can do. Qualcomm got out of the consumer device business a long time ago, but it’s now realizing that it can no longer afford to take a backseat, even if it doesn’t sell directly to mobile users. A viral video or two could help push its brand– that is, of course, assuming the bus stop video actually goes viral.