Chinese brands have struggled to capture the attention of international consumers: Just 22% of consumers outside China can name one, according to research this year by Millward Brown and WPP. For Americans, that figure is 9%.
So for a Chinese brand, how do you build awareness and global brand identity? Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications equipment giant, has a new ad out that's much bolder than the average corporate image campaign.
It shows a ballerina's feet, one in a satin pointe shoe, the other bare and battered, with bits of bandage clinging to it.
"The journey is hard. And joyful," the copy reads.
It's a metaphor for Huawei employees' hard work to innovate for its customers, and it's definitely an arresting image. (It should be noted that a handful of foot-phobic people went on Twitter with questions about it. Such as: "I don't know what @Huawei does/sells, but I do know that their ads freak me out. Plz stop showing me wrecked ballerina feet. #marketingfail.")
Huawei Technologies Co. isn't a household name yet in most countries, but last year it became the first Chinese company to appear on Interbrand's list of the best 100 brands, at No. 94, ahead of Heineken, Pizza Hut and the Gap.
The privately-owned company is a major supplier of telecoms networking infrastructure, but more consumers are getting to know it through its fast-growing smartphone business. In that category it ranked No. 4 globally in the fourth quarter of 2014, after Apple, Samsung and Lenovo-Motorola, according to Strategy Analytics. Huawei says revenues were up 20% in 2014 from 2013, hitting $46 billion, with consumer sales (smartphones, notably) jumping 32%.
Huawei advertises its smartphones with local campaigns, often tied to local sports teams. The ballerina ad is the first in a year-long international corporate image campaign, and it's running in print, online and outdoor, in China, the U.K., Germany and the United Arab Emirates, said Roland Sladek, VP-international media affairs at Huawei.
"The ad captures, in quite a graphic way, how with the beauty of ballet dance you don't see all the hard work behind it, the years and years of practice to achieve what seems simple and light-footed," Mr. Sladek said.
"Huawei sees itself as quite similar," he said. "Today it's very successful, but it took a long time to get there, and people don't see all the hard work behind it."
Joseph Baladi, principal of BrandAsian, a brand consultancy based in Singapore, says the company's dedication to innovation comes out in the new campaign, which he calls "eye-catching."
But he asks if innovation is enough of a message these days: "The relentless innovative models both Samsung and Apple have released over the years have conditioned people to this expectation," he wrote in an email, arguing that Chinese brands need to find their higher purpose and stand for something meaningful to go global successfully.
There's another theme the campaign touches on subtly with its message about its employees' dedication as the secret to its success. The closely-held company is often asked if it can thank the Chinese government for its rise.
Huawei says that neither the government nor the army have any stake in it, and that the company is entirely owned by its employees. It also says China has never asked it to spy. (After U.S. officials raised fears several years ago about potential data security risks, Huawei was limited from doing network equipment business there. It nonetheless sells phones in the U.S.)
Ren Zhengfei, who founded Huawei in the 1980s after retiring from the People's Liberation Army, discussed the company's image at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, again evoking the theme of hard work.
"There are misperceptions, both in China and abroad, about Huawei," Mr. Ren said in rare public remarks. "And I believe as long as we work hard on our direction, our identity could be proved."