One fact speaks volumes about low awareness of Chinese brands: Only 6% of Americans can name one, according to a 2013 Millward Brown study. China's hottest sectors, tech and consumer electronics, might change that in 2014.
Chinese brands have prominent spots at the Consumer Electronics Show starting Tuesday in Las Vegas.
And though some Chinese tech brands started out as mere copycats (as in "the Chinese Twitter," or "the Chinese Facebook"), they're moving past that. "They are trying to innovate now themselves, and on some aspects they are outperforming their global peers," said Feifei Xu, strategy director for China-based consultancy Labbrand.
Here are 7 brands worth watching in 2014:
At last year's CES, Hisense generated buzz by taking the display spot once reserved for Microsoft, where it showed off a prototype for a 3D transparent TV. This year, it's expected to offer more versions of its ultra high-definition smart TVs, already selling at Costco.
A maker of affordable TVs, tablets and home appliances, the state-owned company already earns a third of its revenues outside China, and it's planning a big push in the U.S.
It's among the Chinese brands that might mark the next wave of buzz-worthy imports from Asia, after South Korea and its Samsung megabrand.
As a builder of telecoms networks, Huawei shifted its focus away from the United States after U.S. officials raised fears about potential data security risks. (Huawei dismisses accusations it is too close to the Chinese government and says it has never been asked to spy.)
As a smartphone maker, though, its U.S. business is going strong, and Huawei plans to launch several new models at CES. The former B-to-B company is increasingly focusing on phones – it sold 32 million smartphones in 2012 and is confident of meeting its 2013 target of 50 million.
Faced with customer complaints in the 1980s, Haier CEO Zhang Ruimin lined up dozens of defective refrigerators and ordered workers to smash them with sledgehammers. That commitment to quality – and clever branding trick -- helped turn Haier into one of the world's top appliance brands, ahead of Siemens and Whirlpool, according to a Euromonitor International ranking.
It has broadened its offering to include everything from wine coolers to televisions. Last year at CES, it showed a prototype of a big-screen TV that used no power cords or batteries.
Haier's CEO has won kudos as a Chinese management guru for efforts to help innovators rise to the top. U.S. private equity firm KKR & Co. bought a 10% stake in Qingdao Haier in September.
It's got a hard-to-pronounce name. (That's "sheeow-mee.") But the upstart maker of inexpensive but stylish smartphones is on its way up, fast.
The company shipped 18.7 million phones in 2013, just two years after launching its first product. The 2014 target is 40 million, says CEO Lei Jun, who takes marketing cues from Steve Jobs, though he favors black polo shirts instead of turtlenecks.
Although the U.S. isn't yet on its agenda and it's not showing at CES--this time--Xiaomi lured a top Google Android exec, Hugo Barra, from Silicon Valley to expand Xiaomi outside China, and it just launched in Singapore.
Xiaomi's brand signature is asking customers to suggest product innovations and marketing tactics, then implementing them. It recently sold 150,000 phones in under 10 minutes on WeChat, a Chinese social app.
Some were perplexed when Lenovo tapped actor Ashton Kutcher as a celebrity "product engineer" – and besides, didn't he just play Apple's Steve Jobs on the big screen?
Moving on, though, Lenovo has big plans for 2014. The company, which bought IBM's PC division in 2005 and is a regular at CES, is already the world's biggest PC maker, and now it's planning a massive smartphone push globally, including in the U.S. Its U.S. smartphone marketing plans aren't clear, but NBA star Kobe Bryant is a pitchman in some markets.
2013 brought doubts about Facebook – do teenagers still like it? – and buzz about Tencent's WeChat smartphone app. Tencent's all-in-one app – which blends aspects of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp -- has 271.9 million monthly active users.
WeChat, often considered the Chinese digital product with the most international potential, tapped soccer star Lionel Messi for a global marketing campaign.
WeChat limits how often brands can interact with consumers on the platform, but it's slowly opening to monetization and moving into mobile commerce, heating up a rivalry with Alibaba.
The final figures aren't in yet, but China was expected to jump ahead of the U.S. to become the world's biggest e-commerce market in 2013, according to Bain & Company. That's thanks to powerful Alibaba Group, which says its Taobao platform generates 70% of packages delivered in China.
Alibaba is set for one of the most hotly awaited initial public offerings of 2014, perhaps in Hong Kong or New York. It's gaining a foothold in the U.S. through investments in competitor ShopRunner, app search engine Quixey and online sports retailer Fanatics.
Alibaba is a few brands in one: It runs Tmall, an online shopping mall for brands, and Taobao, China's eBay equivalent. Its ambitions are huge – now it's even getting into personal banking and investing.