(Updates with response from Downey's publicist in fifth paragraph.)
HTC has enlisted actor Robert Downey Jr. for a two-year global marketing deal worth about $12 million to promote the Taiwanese company's smartphone brand, according to two people with knowledge of the plans.
Downey will feature in the campaign as himself, not the characters he plays in movies including Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, and will have final say over creative elements, the people said, declining to be named because the talks aren't public. The maker of the slim, metal HTC One handset will likely feature Downey in television, print and billboard ads, they said.
HTC, once the top-selling smartphone vendor in the U.S., has faced a plunge in market share amid product missteps and stiffer competition from Samsung Electronics, which spends about 10 times as much on marketing. Hiring one of Hollywood's top celebrities is part of its attempt to remain relevant among consumers after dropping to ninth place in global smartphone shipments, as Huawei Technologies and ZTE climbed, according to research firm IDC.
"We have nothing to announce today on a new marketing campaign," Sally Julien, a spokeswoman for HTC, wrote in an e-mail. The HTC One smartphone's "all-metal design has drawn overwhelmingly positive feedback from media and consumers alike. Anyone with a penchant for metal should be able to appreciate its appeal."
Alan Nierob, a spokesman for Downey, declined to comment.
In addition to HTC posting its slimmest profit on record last quarter, sales are down 68 percent and its global smartphone market share is off 76 percent since a peak in the third quarter of 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The company needs to make some bold moves if it wants to regain top of mind among brand-conscious buyers.
In fact, "bold" is exactly the term used by HTC's third marketing chief in two years. Ben Ho, who started the job in January, has dumped "quietly brilliant" as a motto and vowed to dispense with the underdog status his company has worn on its sleeve since it was founded.
"We're not going to hide our brand anymore," Ho told me earlier this month. "We're going to be bolder with marketing."
Boldness might also be about all HTC can afford. Its $1 billion marketing budget last year makes it a minnow compared with the approximately $10 billion Samsung spent to push its line of phones, tablets, televisions and other appliances.
What Ho seeks to do is leverage the relative success of the HTC One, its sexy new flagship Android smartphone that's given it street cred once more. And while celebrity endorsements are back in vogue, a la Brad Pitt-Chanel, the choice of Downey may be especially fitting.
A battle with drugs over a decade ago resulted in Downey leaving the TV series Ally McBeal, a show which led him to his first Golden Globe award. The 48-year-old has since rebuilt himself and his image to star in Marvel's The Avengers and Iron Man movies, which gave Walt Disney's Marvel unit the top two film debuts ever.
With Disney announcing today that Downey has signed onto do Avengers 2 and 3 (and industry website IMDB reporting he's currently working on The Judge and Chef for release next year) Downey's name is likely to remain in bold through the relatively long two-year campaign HTC has signed him for.