Lenovo builds global brand as it preps U.S. smartphone entry

Planned purchase of Motorola 'is very strategic' in overall Lenovo plans

BARCELONA -- What do actor Ashton Kutcher, basketball legend Kobe Bryant, Yoga tablets, Vibe Z smartphones and Motorola all have in common? The answer is Lenovo.

It's the Lenovo that is No. 1 globally in laptops with the ThinkPad line. The same Lenovo that announced in January it is buying the Motorola handset division from Google for $2.91 billion.

This is also the same Lenovo that announced plans earlier in January to buy IBM's X86 server business for $2.3 billion.

The Beijing-based company is on a roll, heading toward becoming a globally recognized brand in nearly all shapes and sizes of computing hardware.

"In 2009, we started with just two netbooks. Now we're trying to cover all market segments. Our aim is to be more global," said Thilo Huys, manager of corporate communications for Lenovo in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. He spoke in an interview at Lenovo's show booth, which is several times larger than the ones in previous years -- at Mobile World Congress.

One big hurdle Lenovo faces in that mission is selling smartphones in the highly competitive U.S. market. Lenovo has 15 smartphone models and is No. 2 in China's smartphone market.

On Monday, Lenovo announced three S-series smartphones at mid-range prices of $229 to $349 and without the faster wireless service, indicating a focus on developing markets where LTE isn't widely available.

The S phones probably won't be important for the U.S. market where LTE is offered by all the major carriers, but Lenovo's high-end Vibe Z with its 5.5-in. display, LTE and $549 price tag announced in early January could be a U.S. contender, Huys said. "We want to be more of a brand in the U.S.," he said. Two years before Lenovo announced it would buy Motorola, the company was assessing ways to introduce smartphones in the U.S.

In wearable computing, Lenovo is "not yet" a contender, Huys conceded. "But we should have all the products." Smartwatches and smart bands caused a stir at MWC, including the Gear Fit from Samsung and Sony's new SmartBand.

Samsung also announced two Tizen-based smartwatches.

In tablets, Lenovo makes eight models, including the hip Yoga line, which is pitched by actor Ashton Kutcher in TV ads. Kobe Bryant became Lenovo's official ambassador for smartphones in China and Southeast Asia last year, an agreement that was recently extended for two more years.

When first announced, Lenovo said that Bryant "will help Lenovo smartphones shift its mature, sober brand image toward a symbol of youth and consumption. The alliance with Kobe Bryant is an important measure in deepening Lenovo's internationalization strategy and helping Lenovo become the leading brand of the PC+Era."

"Brand" is a hugely important word for Lenovo, perhaps bigger than for other global companies. Helping solidify the emerging global Lenovo brand was clearly on the minds of company executives in their pursuit of young, hip pitchmen like Kutcher and Bryant. Huys epitomized this newer Lenovo focus as he dashed around the company's show booth at MWC while wearing brightstriped socks and carrying a Yoga tablet with a bright orange cover.

To Huys, the success of the AppleiPhone is as much about good marketing and branding as it is about its hardware and software. "It's more than half. I'd say 55% [of the iPhone's success] is because of brand, based on Steve Jobs, and the "revolutionary" and "think different" themes.

That devotion to building a recognizable brand is what obsesses Huys and others at Lenovo in their move to go global. "Take Nivea skin creme," Huys said, making an unusual analogy. "It's popular in some countries like France and Brazil and associated with beautiful women. But it's not a Brazilian product at all. Nivea is from Hamburg, Germany. Really! It's a big, stupid German brand."

If the connection between the branding for skin cream to the branding for smartphones and other computers sounds tenuous, don't underestimate Lenovo's deftness and insight.

"The [planned] purchase of Motorola was the result of two years of talking," Huys said. "Motorola wasn't out of the blue. It is very strategic."

This article, Lenovo builds global brand as it preps U.S. smartphone entry, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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