A couple of years ago, when Huawei wanted to tell its story to the world, its founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei carefully selected the right text and imagery to launch its first corporate branding campaign.
It was a photo of a ballerina’s feet (see below) with one dressed up in a silk slipper for performance, while the other revealed the bloodied and bandaged foot underneath, marred by the toll of the all the hard work put into practicing. Rather than brag about about the company's emergence and achievements, Ren wanted to stress the digilence, effort and determination that shaped their path to success.
“We ran the ad because people who didn’t know Huawei were starting to hear about us, and we didn’t want them to think that we had become successful overnight,” explained Joy Tan, Huawei’s president of media and communications in a LinkedIn post. “More subtly, the ad served as a reminder to ourselves not to rest on our laurels. We could not assume that our brand’s prominence in China would translate overseas.”
But it has. The communications technology firm operates in more than 170 countries with 180,000 employees globally. From 2012 to 2016 Huawei more than doubled its annual sales revenue to US$75 billion with more than half of that coming from outside China.
Fast-forward two years and Huawei’s new corporate branding campaign looks very different. A new carefully selected image is of a lighthouse beam piercing through the darkness under an Australian night sky—the veritable beacon of light metaphor often conjured up by world leaders to reflect their intention to be a guiding light for others.
“In the past we have been in terms of market position and solutions…somewhat of a follower,” Tan told Campaign. “Now Huawei has become a leader in the ICT industry. We need to continue to look forward and have longer term visions. This was inspired by that idea that we need to continue to innovate for the future. So the first image is of this lighthouse—relentless pursuit of innovation enlightens the intelligent world.”
The theme for this corporate campaign is ‘exploration’. Huawei now wants the world to view it as a pioneer, a world innovator. And while it's easy to dismiss corporate slogans, consider that of its 180,000 employees, 80,000 who work for Huawei are now focused on research and development, and every year going forward the company plans to plow $10 billion to $20 billion into R&D, whether in its main telecom carrier equipment division, or its consumer electronics and enterprise businesses.
Other images from the ‘exploration’ campaign revolve around shared knowledge and innovative breakthroughs: photos of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in the US and the Trinity College Library in Dublin.
In many ways, Huawei’s new brand image embodies China’s desire to move from production toward a knowledge-based economy. It also reflects China’s greater ambition to engage with the world, as reflected in the One Belt One Road initiative, which Huawei views as a real opportunity.
“One Belt One Road is definitely very exciting,” Tan said. “As a technology provider Huawei can definitely help those [trade route] countries improve the infrastructure and digitization process”.
Huawei so closely reflects China’s new ambitions that it would be easy to consider the tech giant as a proxy for Brand China. But Tan bristles at the suggestion. “Huawei is a global company,” she reminds us. “You can see our overseas revenue is larger than China, so we really want to position our brand as a global brand.”
Dialing up the marketing
If there’s one thing that earning Huawei broader recognition around the globe nowadays, it would be its booming smartphone business. Last year, its consumer division jumped 44% in annual sales growth, nearly double the pace of its core carrier division. It now brings in more than a third of Huawei’s total revenue.
If brand recognition as a suppplier of telecom equipment once lent legitimacy to the launch of Huawei’s smartphone business, having a popular consumer brand could soon provide reciprocal benefits. For many years, Huawei’s telecom equipment business has been thwarted from expanding in America by a distrustful US Congress. Some of that distrust might just ease if constituents, friends and family members of US politicians show they’re comfortable with owning and using Huawei-branded products every day.
“I think the B2B brand recognition definitely helped the consumer business to grow and vice versa,” said Tan. “For the consumers when they see our products, especially the smart devices, they realize these are very innovative top-notch, high-quality products. [This] will definitely help us improve the brand on the B2B side as well,” she added, without specifically referring to the US policy.
Consumer electronics, however, requires a different kind of marketing. Being flashy might not be in Huawei’s corporate DNA, but when you’re selling gold-plated phones and watches with cutting edge cameras and designs, you’re not in Kansas anymore. Your campaigns need to make noise and draw attention, which Huawei has done by recruiting star-power in the form of celebrity ambassadors Scarlett Johansson and Henry Cavill for past P9 campaigns (above).
Meanwhile its most recent Mate 10 campaign by Marcel Paris (below) not only positions the phone as an advanced intelligent machine with the world's first AI processor, but it brings a very premium aesthetic as well. “What shines inside should shine outside as well” said Marcel Paris creative director Remy Aboukrat of the campaign.
And as a conglomerate like Samsung knows too well, consumer branding has a way of quickly overshadowing whatever image or branding has been carefully crafted for the larger corporation. Tan, as the guardian of Huawei’s brand and reputation, admits her greatest challenge from all this growth is in having the company’s main narrative work for all its divisions, products, services, regions and markets.
These growing pains are now further complicated by the transformation in the media and advertising space with new digital capabilities. “We’re working with the media companies to figure out what’s their core competency and how we can leverage their expertise. At the same time there are so many other new platforms we need to continue to learn and to figure out how we can utilize those new platforms,” Tan adds.
One area Huawei has begun experimenting with is its global influencer program, building relationships with KOLs in its core industries to keep them up to date on new initiatives and to provide context around larger product or even earnings announcements. But Tan admits it’s still early days. And with KOLs, along with corporate branding, it’s still difficult to measure the exact ROI on the sum of multiple initiatives, though they watch it carefully.
“In terms of marketing, branding and communication there are a lot of new choices and it’s quite complex,” Tan admitted. “We just have to learn internally how to utilize all these resources and get the best return on investment.”
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