Weekend Confidential: Marc Mathieu -- WSJ

By Alexandra Wolfe Features Dow Jones Newswires

The Samsung marketing chief is working to get past the recall

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Samsung executive Marc Mathieu is sitting in his office in lower Manhattan the day before the much-anticipated release of the company's new Galaxy S8 smartphone. His office is a colorfully decorated conference room with a rectangular meeting table that doubles as his desk. Screens cover two of the walls, and smartphones, virtual-reality headsets and other high-tech gear are littered around the room. As he looks out at the Hudson River, he acknowledges that a lot is riding on this launch.

Mr. Mathieu, 56, joined Samsung Electronics America as chief marketing officer in 2015, and since then the company has faced some difficult times. Last year, Samsung recalled its Galaxy Note 7 smartphone -- some 2.5 million units in all -- after faulty batteries led some of the phones to overheat and catch on fire. The company's vice chairman and de facto chief, Lee Jae-yong, is currently on trial in Seoul, facing charges including bribery, embezzlement and perjury. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Samsung launched the $720 Galaxy S8 on Friday. The phone has gotten positive reviews for its tall, gently curved screen and narrow, easy-to-grip shape -- though some still worry about the battery issue. So how do you convince consumers that your latest product isn't going to go up in flames? "When you go through what we went through last year, it forces you to listen to a lot of people...more intensely," says Mr. Mathieu. He held focus groups with customers to talk about their needs -- and how the company could rebuild trust. Samsung, which has blamed the Galaxy Note 7 issue on battery suppliers, has spent about $130 million on product safety.

Mr. Mathieu says that, because of the recent safety problems, the company has created ads for the new device based on a message of empowerment rather than on humor. "We'll have humor in due course," he says. "It's not the time to be funny. It's the time to say, 'This is a great phone.' "

Earlier this month, Samsung said that preorders of the S8 outpaced those of its predecessor, the S7, although it didn't release numbers. Counterpoint Research expects that Samsung will ship more than 300 million smartphones globally in 2017, including 50 million of the S8. By comparison, it expects Apple to ship 230 million iPhones, out of which 75 million will be the coming iPhone 8 series.

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Mr. Mathieu's love of the theater informs his marketing philosophy. One of his favorite quotes is from George Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman": "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." His goal is to help people "be a little bit unreasonable" -- which, to his mind, means creating products that can do things that previously seemed impossible.

One group he's targeting is young adults -- the highly coveted millennials. In February, the company came out with an ad campaign called "Do what you can't," in which artists, videographers and internet celebrities discuss how they have used technology to do creative work and prove wrong the people who told them "you can't."

Last year, Mr. Mathieu spearheaded the opening of Samsung 837, a "technology playground" and digital culture center in Manhattan that lets people try out Samsung's products but doesn't offer anything for sale, aside from food and coffee. Visitors can put on virtual-reality headsets, test smart kitchen appliances and come for special events on massive screens. (Selfies and social-media posts are encouraged.) Mr. Mathieu sees it as a way to build the brand and create relationships with consumers -- and as a chance for the company to see how their customers use the products. "It's a great way for us to learn what works and what doesn't work," he says.

Mr. Mathieu grew up in France; his parents were entrepreneurs in construction and now work in real estate there. After earning a master's degree in international marketing in Paris, he worked for Danone, Coca-Cola and Unilever in Europe, including in France, Asia and the U.K. "I was always attracted to an international career," he says. At Coca-Cola, he spearheaded the brand's reinvention in 2004, including the creation and marketing of Coke Zero.

At Samsung, he runs a team of more than 100 people. Leaders are often rewarded with titles such as "mayors," "pioneers" and "achievers" in their various groups. He encourages disagreement among his employees. "I like to ask two people for their opinion if I know they won't agree," he says.

Though he is based in New York, he frequently visits the company's headquarters in South Korea. When he isn't working, he and his wife, an artist, like to travel. They have three adult children who live in California. "When people ask, 'How are your kids doing?'...I say, 'They struggle,' " he says. "It's difficult to be 20-plus in today's world. There's so much competition, and everybody can come up with a great idea...so everybody wants to."

He has long been interested in theater and serves on the board of several theater companies, including Punchdrunk and the Almeida Theatre. He particularly likes immersive drama experiences, such as Punchdrunk's "Sleep No More," an interactive show based on "Macbeth" in which audience members wander around different rooms.

He likens the experience to people's relationship with technology today. The audience "does not just interact with a play but interacts with themselves," he says. "Instead of the play telling you what are you supposed to hear or learn, you are the one who discovers all the meaning that you want to put in the play."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 22, 2017 02:47 ET (06:47 GMT)