In China, Huawei captures around 40% of the smartphone market. In the west its smartphones, computers and tablets have emerged as strong contenders to the region’s powerhouse tech brands like Apple, but with some setbacks.
To consumers in the UK and US, the brand is also instantly recognisable as one that is often hitting the headlines, most recently for stories surrounding network security and former president Donald Trump – who banned Chinese firms like Huawei from selling products in the US and from working with companies like Google or ARM for critical software and licenses.
Since taking on the role of chief brand officer at Huawei in 2019, former Samsung marketer Andrew Garrihy has been candid about the challenges of marketing a Chinese tech brand in the west. For him, much like all other marketers, the past 12 months have been another steep learning curve.
“2020 was a period where there's just so much change and so much confusion in our markets and for our consumers, and for our partners,” he explains, saying when the pandemic first reared its head, he quickly refocused his marketing team to think about the brand’s ultimate purpose – using its technology to connect and empower people.
“We zoomed in on that and on delivering value to all customers to help cut through all the noise. It kept us focused and calmer.”
His biggest learning in the pandemic era has been to lead his team to focus on what they can control, rather than what they cannot.
“It’s made everything much more manageable and it’s given us better results.”
This is an approach which has been adopted against the backdrop of a tough economic and political climate for brands, including his own.
Though Huawei develops many technologies across the globe, it has a significant stake in growing share of the smartphone market in western markets. Progress has been offset by the trade sanctions imposed in the US and compounded by a decline of economic activity across Europe.
In line with this, Huawei Technologies’ global smartphone market share is expected to fall to just 4% in 2021, a precipitous drop for the company that last summer ranked as the world leader in shipments.
The Chinese behemoth will still account for 14% of the market in 2021, however.
For his part, Garrihy – who is nominated for this year’s Global Marketer of the Year Award by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) – has been working behind the scenes on a plan to make the most of its global creative footprint and boost the brand’s presence across the globe.
‘Blending the best of the west with the best of the east’
Garrihy’s control principle has manifested itself in the form of a new marketing model for Huawei, which has creative teams across the globe including in London and China. These internal teams have dedicated agency staffers sitting alongside them (virtually, for now) and they now work to a “relay sprint system”.
Creative campaigns are now developed in China in the small hours of the morning, before the baton is passed over to the London and Europe teams to complete the next phase. It then gets passed back, and the cycle continues.
“We’ve never worked like that and it’s been really powerful. It’s suddenly given us a lot more diversity of thought and our efficiency has increased dramatically because we’ve been in constant communication and relaying the work sprints.”
He acknowledges it hasn’t been easy changing the corporate culture and working processes with staff working remotely, but says it has resulted in work like its global ‘Together 2020’ campaign and its recent Christmas ad which was based on the true story of a homeless man’s experience during Covid-19.
The brand has also continued to invest heavily in Storysign, an AI-powered app that aims to help deaf children read by translating the text from selected books into sign language.
First founded in 2018, Storysign now spans 71 books, 20 countries and 15 sign languages, reaching around 60% of the world's deaf population.
“It’s grown dramatically, and it’s the perfect example of the east and the west coming together to solve a problem that’s never been tackled before. It’s hard to pull off but it’s empowering.”
‘You can’t control politics’
Though it is baking purpose into the heart of its brand, from a PR perspective last year has held some challenges for the brand.
As highlighted already, the company is under pressure from government bans on the use of its telecoms equipment in national networks with the UK and Sweden being the latest to do so. However, Huawei says its most lucrative markets — east Asian countries such as China and South Korea — do not share these security concerns.
On the back off a year in the spotlight, there’s no denying the brand took a financial hit in 2020.
Revenues in the first nine months of the year were $100.5bn, translating into a 3.7% year-on-year increase in the July to September period and a huge drop from the 27% growth recorded in the third quarter of 2019. However, it didn’t push pause on its advertising; quite the opposite.
“While there have been some changes in consumer demand across categories, we haven't really pulled back on our ad spend,” explains Garrihy. “We've shifted budgets to different categories. Where we have seen a reduction in demand for smartphones, we’ve actually noted a dramatic increase in demand for PCs and tablets and other products like wearable.
“So for us, we haven't seen we haven't pulled back, we’ve actually invested more. 2020 was probably our biggest year ever for brand investment. We launched our biggest ever global brand campaign in 2020, right in the middle of a global pandemic around the world.”
On recent controversies, Garrihy refers back to his control principle.
“The marketing principles are exactly the same, it’s about understanding who you are, who your consumers are, understanding the value you add and making sure you deliver that to your consumers. If you do that your consumers will stick by you, and that’s critical.”
He concedes that in recent times politics has caused trouble for brands the world over, Huawei included, but it’s impossible to regulate this kind of coverage from the marketing department.
“You can’t drive that narrative. So my advice to anyone in that situation is focus on what you can control, stay focused on your core purpose, stay focused on your consumer and make sure you deliver real meaningful value, because that's what consumers care about.
“Don't spend too much time trying to control the external narrative, because you can't”.