A new corporate image campaign for Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, shows an African man trapping fish with a handmade basket. What does that have to do with high-tech Huawei, builder of network equipment and smartphones?
The idea comes from Ren Zhengfei, the engineer who founded Huawei in 1987 and more recently became engrossed by a TV documentary about villagers with a generations-old system of trapping fish in Congo River rapids. Mr. Ren identified with them. "He saw a lot of parallels with Huawei, in terms of focus and trying to achieve a target," said Roland Sladek, VP-international media affairs at Huawei.
Privately held Huawei has been trying harder to explain what it stands for to consumers globally as it gains traction as a consumer brand through its booming smartphone business. (In the U.S., the Chinese company's ambitions for its mainstay networking equipment business were curtailed because of lawmakers' concerns over national security, but it's still selling smartphones.)
The fisherman ad will appear in major publications, in print and online; in airline magazines; and in international airports from the U.S. to Europe to China, along with other images Huawei selected to illustrate its values. One shows late track great Florence Griffith Joyner crossing the finish line with the caption: "A lifetime of dedication, for a moment of victory."
At a time of change, Huawei is probably also reminding itself of its values, defined in its ads as hard work, focus, patience and playing the long game.
After retiring from the military, Mr. Ren founded Huawei 29 years ago with 21,000 yuan, or a few thousand dollars.
The company had revenue of $60 billion in 2015, up 35% from the year earlier. It also had a 7.4% share of the global smartphone market by shipments, according to IDC, behind Samsung and Apple but ahead of China's Lenovo and Xiaomi. Its global smartphone shipments grew by more than 44% last year; the company said at CES in Las Vegas that it expects to overtake Apple within two years.
This weekend at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the company displayed a tablet-laptop hybrid. Beyond devices, the company has a growing information and communications technology offer for corporate clients.
"All great companies have founders to install values; when they go astray, very often it's because they lose themselves, lose their roots," said Mr. Sladek. "I think Huawei is very conscious of that fact. That's why the founder put his touch on this campaign."
Chinese brands have struggled with global awareness, but Huawei might be the most successful among them. It earns more revenue outside the country than in it, and it was the first Chinese company to appear on Interbrand's list of the top 100 global brands. It was No. 88 last year, ahead of Heineken, MTV and Ralph Lauren.
The new campaign was led internally; in terms of agencies, Huawei works with Isobar and a team at WPP. Recent Huawei hires have worked within Omnicom and Interpublic Group of Companies. It has signed sponsorship deals with soccer leagues and clubs, including Spain's La Liga, Paris Saint-Germain and London's Arsenal FC.
Some marketers might scratch their heads at the trio of images in Huawei's image campaign. There's the fisherman and Flo-Jo, and also a photo of the world's most powerful particle accelerator.
In an earlier phase of the campaign, Huawei used a shot of a ballerina's painful-looking bare, calloused foot as a metaphor for hard work. (The foot photo was also picked by Mr. Ren.)
The images might not resonate with everyone, but at least Huawei is reaching out.
"I've got this old joke … In China, branding is getting a new logo, advertising is buying time on [state-owned broadcaster] CCTV and PR is paying the reporter," said David Wolf, managing director of the global China practice for Allison & Partners. "The first part is very valid. Some people think as long as you've got a logo it's enough … Huawei realizes it needs more than a logo—it needs to let people know what it stands for. We can criticize the result of that effort, but we must applaud the fact it's even making that effort."
Huawei's success with consumers to date is probably driven more by products than marketing. Google partnered with Huawei on the Nexus 6P phone, which had great reviews. Its affordable, sleek Honor line targets millennials. It hired a former Apple creative director, Abigail Brody, as chief user experience designer.
The company also made advances in fingerprint technology and battery life, according to Neil Shah, research director at Counterpoint Research. Its design choices, like going for an all-metal body on the Mate 7 line when Samsung still focused on plastic, have boosted brand value, he said.
Counterpoint predicts Huawei will sell 130 million phones this year, up from 108 million last year.
It has work to do in the U.S., where its smartphone share is still small. The "big four" carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon—don't offer Huawei handsets, as Mr. Shah noted. Huawei might need to alleviate any concerns they have about security and backdoors, he said. (Huawei says the devices have a "robust security system in place"; spokesman Mr. Sladek pointed to its partnership with Google as a sign of partner confidence.)
In the end, as Huawei's brand becomes more well-known, consumers may also give the mobile players a nudge, Mr. Shah said: "There will be some pressure on carriers to have (Huawei) in their portfolios if customers start demanding, 'Those are really good devices, why don't you have them?'"