Lenovo's Deepak Advani

Branding a $14 billion startup

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SHANGHAI--“We’re branding a $14 billion start-up.”

That's the short phrase used by Deepak Advani, Lenovo's chief marketing officer and senior VP of global e-commerce, to describe a very large job--turning a Chinese PC-maker into a global brand.

During his keynote address at the AdAgeChina Digital Marketing conference at the Westin hotel in Shanghai on Dec. 6 , Mr. Advani used Lenovo’s rise from cheap knock-off into world-class competitor to describe the some of the challenges facing all marketers in China, home to millions of tech-savvy consumers who get their news and entertainment from digital media.

Lenovo's evolution into a global brand started in late 2004, when the company known as Legend, already a major business in China, acquired IBM’s Corp.'s PC business for $1.75 billion. That bold move put Lenovo on the world stage overnight.

As the largest local producer of computers and mobile phone handsets in China, and now a rising global brand, "digital marketing takes an important role in our marketing mix," said Mr. Advani. Before joining Lenovo, Mr. Advani worked at IBM for 13 years. His last role there was VP of marketing and strategy for IBM’s PC division.

Today, he oversees Lenovo’s brand as well as its global e-commerce business, giving him a major role in areas as diverse as product design and the activation of global sponsorships with organizations like the Olympic Games, of which Lenovo is the only global Chinese sponsor, the National Basketball Association and Formula One.

In one sense, those partnerships are mass-market product demonstrations designed to show consumers that Lenovo products are as good as more familiar western brands.

"The Olympics is the mother of all sponsorships. I'm incredibly excited about it. Lenovo is a new brand globally, so we need customers to trust us. What drives trust? When we can say that we are capable of running the most complex IT infrastructure system in the world for the Olympics," said Mr. Advani, although the Chinese company has announced it will not sponsor the event after the 2008 Summer Games.

Virtually every aspect of the Olympics, for example, depends on Lenovo's technology. Hundreds of its PCs, monitors and servers are being integrated into game management systems like accreditation, staffing and scheduling, transportation, sports entries and qualifications; timing and scoring; ticketing; and installation of internet cafes for athletes and coaches in Olympic villages.

"Trust is very important but what drives trust? When we can say that we are capable of running the most complex IT infrastructure system in the world for the Olympics," said Mr. Advani.

For the NBA deal signed last year, Lenovo deployed ThinkPad, ThinkCentre and Lenovo 3000 notebook and desktop PCs courtside in all 30 NBA arenas to record data and statistical information for more than 1,300 NBA games throughout the regular season and playoffs. It also created Lenovo Stat, a plus/minus statistic that will look at the point differential when players are both in and out of the game, to see how the team performs with various combinations. The software lets NBA fans identify the best two-player, three -layer, four-player and five-player combinations for each game, or over an entire season, on its web site, www.nba.com/statistics/lenovo.

"Our challenge is that when people think of a Chinese brand, they stereotype and think it means they are priced competitively but the products are lower quality. To change that view," said Mr. Advani, Lenovo's brand strategy is two-fold, "building Lenovo into a strong master brand and strengthening the ThinkPad product sub-brand. To do that, we have had to maintain continuity and trust of the IBM name, start linking the ThinkPad brand to Lenovo's brand and accelerate Lenovo's own brand-building."

The company believes it has succeeded on the last point; Lenovo's global brand value is now worth $14 billion, according to Mr. Advani, and the company is giving up use of the IMB name two years ahead of schedule.

Mr. Advani call himself a "firm believer in digital marketing," because a lot of our customers are on the web and 70% of people buying computers in stores do research online. "We also need a dialog online with consumers in places like YouTube and blogs. I'm amazed at how quickly things spread on the web."

One particularly humorous TV spot for Lenovo laptops, for example, which showed a computer was downloaded over six million times in the weeks after it was released.

The role of other vehicles is still important. "We have to look ad brand-building holistically, because we need to connect with consumers at every touch point, whether it's talking to a sales rep in the store or a neighbor who works for the company, we must get across our message that we are committed to building the best PCs on the planet. But we don't have big budgets like our global competitors, so our advertising has to be especially distinctive and capture consumer imagination," he added.

"So what's the best way to tell the world what Lenovo is doing, such as our involvement with the Olympic torch relay, without spending $200 million? The world is changing. Now we're partnering with companies like Google to connect with consumers and spread our message of innovation."
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