Creative

Huawei – could a rebrand give them the lead?

Smartphones are pretty much all the same right now; a rounded rectangle, mostly screen – with a notch, a camera bump and a headphone ja… Oh. Never mind. In a world of iPhones, Galaxies and Pixels, only one device manufacturer seems to even attempt innovation – and it’s neither Apple, Samsung or Google.

Huawei phones are utterly audacious. The Mate 20 Pro features an in-screen fingerprint scanner, a triple rear camera setup, object recognition and reverse charging – which lets you wirelessly “gift” power to another device (it’s like magic, but it’s science).

Speaking of which, it has a huge 4,300-mAh battery that reaches 70% charged in 30 minutes – enough to power the swathe of in-house designed processors, the eye-popping, pixel-dense AMOLED screen and the cluster of rear facing cameras.

Huawei haven’t just made a nice looking slab of glass and filled it with the features they hope people want – they’ve actually solved real-world problems with hardware (even if they did create a problem by removing the headphone jack).

Simply put, nobody’s doing more than Huawei when it comes to hardware. Their phones amaze and delight; it’s Star Trek sci-fi, delivered like Disney magic.

So why don’t we want one?

How to pronounce Huawei: is it Hoo-a-way-ee, or Wah-why?

Huawei is many things, but it’s not a pretty word – at least not in English, Dutch, German, Spanish… It means “splendid achievement”, apparently.

The company considered changing the name in 2018, but decided against it in favour of an awareness campaign promoting proper pronunciation (it’s “wow way”, in case you were wondering).

But it hasn’t really taken hold. In the Netherlands, it’s still “Hoe-ah-wei”. And in the UK, you’ll be lucky to hear it said the same way from one person to the next – but “Wah-why” or similar is common.

An awareness campaign could have worked if it was approached like the Jif to Cif rebrand of late 2000, with a massive nationwide campaign. Huawei’s attempt did little to reshape the name in people’s minds.

Huawei is huge, but it feels like a knock-off.

The Huawei brand is only just becoming a thing in western countries, after more than 30 years of relentless telecoms innovation in China. It’s an absolute monster of an organisation – it turned over $92.549 billion in 2017. This company is legitimate in the extreme. The Chinese government, one of the most cautious, least trusting establishments in human history, trusts it.

It turns out truly exceptional products. But the pitch to western consumers hasn’t worked. And it’s not like Asian tech companies struggle to break western markets: look at Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Acer – Sony for crying out loud. Asian tech is, without any doubt, the most prevalent in the world.

This is not a cultural issue. K-pop has transcended all cultural barriers to become mainstream in the west. Anime has its own category on Netflix. Uniqlo remains a high-end high street staple. The brands that won the west did so because they understood the market. They understood the audience.

And they’re easy to pronounce.

While so many people in western markets were willing to take a risk on HTC phones as a fledgling brand, comparatively few are hedging their bets on Huawei. Why?

Marketing. Not that Huawei does a bad job at PR – they’ve totally smashed it with accessibility ads lately. Their PR team is brilliantly aware. But when half of your potential western customer base can barely say your name right twice in a row, and you flat out refuse to do anything about it, your brand is immediately the wrong kind of confrontational: it’s arrogant, dismissive and intimidating. No amount of PR fluff stories or “wow” inducing technology can turn that around.

While we’d all love everyone to be able to say “华为技术有限公司” with a convincing Shenzhen accent – you simply cannot ask that much of your audience. The belief that you don’t need to adapt to foreign markets has played out terribly for so many western brands: Tesco has pulled out of Asia. L’Oreal was rejected in China. Marks and Spencer, ASOS – none of them have successfully replicated their model in emerging markets.

Huawei understands what the average tech consumer wants so perfectly, but it just can’t cut through like Samsung or Sony. It doesn’t have the voice, the name or the look. Not yet.

Huawei is exceptional, but it’s not global.

It’s a weird paradox of western culture: we value and promote going it alone, being brave and sticking to principles – but when we’re faced with it, we nine times out of ten reject things that fly in the face of convention.

The reason Huawei isn’t outpacing the competition in the west isn’t because their products are inferior – they’re making the most advanced luxury devices at a price point at least 10% lower than their nearest rivals. They can’t find a solid foothold because they won’t change tack. They’re just doubling down on what they’ve got.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then Huawei is insane to continue with a Chinese-localised brand in the west. Huawei has made huge strides outside of China in other Asian markets, where PR and marketing have accelerated growth and brand trust – but we’re talking about regions where less than 1% of the population has internet access. And we all know that a multi-billion dollar enterprise didn’t get all that money through altruism.

Maybe the answer lies in a broken up, global branding strategy; Huawei for eastern markets, Brand X for the west. Maybe there’s a name and image that resonates universally. Maybe Until Huawei questions these aspects of itself, it’ll be stuck in its own hemisphere.