What to Expect From the Top Five Chinese Smartphone Brands Pushing Into U.S.

Newcomers Likely to Take a Variety of Marketing Approaches to Win Over Consumers

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A host of Chinese smartphones have big ambitions for the U.S. -- but don't expect a flood of marketing from them.

Just a few weeks ago, research firm IDC declared that Xiaomi, a four-year-old Beijing company, had stormed to third in the worldwide smartphone market based on units shipped. Only a day later, it was leapfrogged when Lenovo completed its Motorola acquisition. These companies now aim to replicate industry leader Samsung's rise, parlaying success at home to go global.

Realizing this goal, however, could be an expensive marketing proposition for brands that are obscure outside of China. U.S. carriers are reluctant to carry the political risk (and marketing weight) of selling Chinese devices. That puts the onus on the smartphone brands themselves.

"Chinese brands don't do a great job of brand building," said Ben Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies. "The cost to invest and build a brand in the U.S. seems a bit too daunting for them."

Daunting but tempting. Western markets still hold the industry's best margins -- and its prestige. "To be a truly global brand, you have to be in the U.S.," said Lawrence Lundy, a Frost & Sullivan analyst. He expects that some Chinese brands will follow Samsung's strategy of investing broadly in media; others will attempt to sell devices without spending big, like Apple. Here's what to expect from the top five.

The Samsung route

Lenovo: Lenovo is the best positioned among the Chinese manufacturers flirting with the U.S. Indeed, it already has a strong footprint here: The company is based in Beijing and Morrisville, N.C., and recently ramped up U.S. promotions for PCs and tablets. With Motorola, Lenovo bought its way into the smartphone market, sidestepping regulatory and carrier hurdles its peers face while coming away with a well-known brand.

Lenovo CEO Yang Yuanqing has said he's not content with bronze. To topple No. 1 Samsung and No. 2 Apple, he'll need to restore Motorola's cachet with a big ad budget. But he'll also need to stem its losses, estimated at $1 billion last year.

ZTE: On Oct. 27, the New York Knicks revealed its latest sponsor: ZTE. Primarily a telecommunications equipment provider, ZTE has sold handsets in the U.S. since 2007, mostly with prepaid connections. Still, it's far from a household name, with more than a third of its phones "white-labeled" without the ZTE name. It's also hobbled by concerns about its relationship with the Chinese government.

To net recognition, ZTE is going with lavish media unions. The Knicks endorsement is its third league partnership. It will push its devices as "affordable premium," said Andrew Elliott, senior director-strategic marketing. During the 2013 season, he claimed, consumer awareness of ZTE quadrupled among fans of the Houston Rockets, its first sponsored team.

Huawei: Like ZTE, Huawei is a network infrastructure powerhouse dabbling in devices. Huawei is bigger -- its 2013 revenue (roughly $39 billion) is three times larger -- and is more methodical in courting Western markets. Mr. Lundy described Huawei as "more sophisticated" in its business than others. Globally, it has leaned on digital and social for product launches.

But it has ripped a page from the Samsung playbook, too. Last year, Huawei backed a Jonas Brothers concert and sponsored British soccer team Arsenal F.C. William Plummer, Huawei's VP-external affairs, said it plans to extend its portfolio in the U.S. in 2015, "including potentially introducing global flagship devices."

The Apple way

Xiaomi: In little time, Xiaomi has moved from newcomer to formidable front-runner. IDC estimates the company shipped 17.3 million devices last quarter -- and it only recently spilled beyond China, with tighter moniker Mi. It sells premium phones cheaply online, with lean marketing and a buzz rivaled only by Apple. Its marketing has sprouted imitators.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Xiaomi turned a profit of $566 million in 2013. And while most of that comes from devices, Xiaomi is morphing into a fuller entertainment portal, selling software and investing $1 billion in video content. "If there is a lesson to learn from Samsung, really controlling the ecosystem is the only viable play," said Mr. Lundy. But analysts are skeptical that Xiaomi, which operates in eight Asian nations, can make a dent in the U.S. A spokeswoman said it has "no plans at the moment" to enter the country.

OnePlus: If scarcity drives Xiaomi's success (its flash sales frequently sell out), then OnePlus is bound for ascendance: Right now, you can only buy its phones through invitation. Its flagship device is cheap ($299 off-contract) and widely praised by tech reviewers. The Shenzhen startup doesn't have anything approaching the war chest of its Chinese peers, let alone larger rivals. But it may herald a new era of slimmer brand building. OnePlus claims it sold 500,000 devices since premiering in May 2013, with a marketing budget of just $300 -- spent mostly on targeted Facebook ads.

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