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How can ZTE build its brand equity in the US?

brand equity brand equity
Photo credit:

Kārlis Dambrāns

ZTE is the 4th biggest manuafacturer of smartphones. However, it doesn't have a strong brand in the US. Here's what it is doing to try to change that.

Can a major brand build real equity by associating with something else — a person or even another brand? It’s of course the concept behind the celebrity pitchman but it is a curious phenomenon when you stop to think about it – the equivalent of showing up at high school with a picture of the cool kid sewed to your bomber jacket.

So how can we begin to understand this? Susan Fournier, the world’s leading authority on brand relationships and Professor of Marketing at Boston University deconstructs it in her influential paper, Consumers and their Brands.

She describes “instances in which the brand is somehow possessed by the spirit of a past or present other. The use of spokespeople in advertising qualifies here as an example. Spokespersons may have personalities that so strongly fit those of the brands they advertise, that the brand, in a sense, becomes the spokesperson through repeated association over time….serving to animate the brand as a vital entity in the consumers mind.”

The case study of ZTE’s brand equity

This spring, we have a stirring example of a brand drawing its cachet from a person and another brand. This is how agency of record, Grayling, and digital creative firm, Nurture Digital, describe it: “ZTE, the world’s 4th largest smartphone maker, needs street cred. After 16 years of producing white-label phones for AT&T and other carriers, millions of Americans are carrying ZTE phones without knowing it. The Chinese mobile giant needs to earn the country’s attention and trust.”

ZTE is a terrific case study because the company has serious ambition, staking its American strategy on a nifty product – the Spro 2, the world’s first Android-powered smart projector (the product was developed by ZTE in January 2014 and the software interface is modified for each carrier), which launched on April 24th. It’s an intriguing device that we didn’t know we needed – a phone-sized gadget that works without WiFi, without cables, that can stream Netflix and YouTube everywhere we go, on any surface.

All of this would be yet another smart gadget rollout if it weren’t also attended by a very striking, affecting co-branding campaign that illuminates the ways brands can establish their bona fides through the halo effect of other people, events or even other companies. Calling it the “Unbound” campaign, Grayling and Nurture put the Spro 2 “in the hands of a guy whose life we believed could be truly enhanced by the product, someone tapped into millennial culture, and whose line of work is familiar to every American.” Who did they choose? Chris Jordan, the CEO of Verve Coffee Roasters, a company named one of the top roasters in the U.S. by Thrillist, Complex Magazine and Food Republic. Formerly Global Head of Quality for Starbucks, he decamped for Africa to run a non-profit initiative supporting 180,000 farmers and develop a coffee business in Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Recently, I wrote a piece about what makes a person or a brand cool, quoting Philosopher Thorsten Botz-BorNstein who described cool as a nonconformist balance that manages to square circles and to personify paradoxes.” In selecting Chris Jordan, ZTE certainly found their cool factor.

What ZTE can learn from craft coffee

“I was asked if I would utilize a projector like this,” Jordan told me. “I was already a fan because I’d traveled through Africa across vast distances and dirt roads with a ZTE phone. To me their products provide mobility, education; they are useful.” Jordan, an alumnus of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation moved from Africa to take the job at Verve to “reinvent and reformulate the idea of direct trade, knowing the growers and treating the baristas like artisans.” Partnering with health brands like Juice Served Here and Dr. Kifer and creating an enormous social space at the Verve café in L.A.’s fashion district, Jordan has helped make the Verve brand equity, as much about craft coffee as about urban renewal, social responsibility and eclecticism. All of which comes through in the superb series of 4 videos by Nurture Digital that will be supported with $300k of paid media (online video) and promoted by online influencers.

Notice the cinema verite style defined by handheld camera, rack focusing and jump cutting (the style was originally employed by documentarians in the 60s like Fred Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers). “The ideation was a joint effort, “said Katherine St. Lawrence, Producer with Nurture. “Together with Grayling, we developed the concept of profiling a small business in downtown LA. Searching for a subject who provided great visuals as well as a great story, Nurture visited around a dozen businesses in Los Angeles (including various business leaders in the tech world), before settling on the four we liked most, who we submitted to Grayling. Grayling and ZTE chose Verve.”

It works. The decoupage and music all add up to an image of Jordan as motivated but also relaxed and confident (in keeping with the Verve brand). My favorite shot may be the montage of him walking the streets with a messenger bag slung around his shoulders — at once a maverick and a man at home in the world. “We wanted to show how the Spro2 seamlessly fits in with everyday life,” added St. Lawrence. All of these aesthetic choices (including the choice of the sumptuous RED Epic Dragon camera) add up to an expert visual analogue to Verve’s culture (Jordan describes Verve’s clients as ranging from artists and musicians to stroller moms and litigators). And by extension, it interpellates us, addresses us as part of that community as well. When we watch the commercials, we feel like messenger-bag carrying, cosmopolitan, doing-well-by- doing-gooders. This is how you create brand equity and a brand community – an army of loyalists who not only buy into your product but also buy into your vision. Why should companies care about that? Because brand communities increase repeat business, deepen brand meanings, lower marketing costs, and generate ideas for new products.

Where are ZTE going wrong?

So, what’s the problem? The rich, human contours of the Unbound campaign don’t align with the ZTE brand. A brief visit to the ZTE site after you’ve watched the videos shows the disjuncture between the two brands.

The ZTE home page is largely plain sans serif type (some of it in neon green with exclamation marks) and product photos that have the artlessness of a basic e-commerce site. When I talked to Andrew Elliott, Vice President of Marketing at ZTE, he conceded that they are a work in progress. “We historically developed infrastructure equipment and are now moving to products that are with people everyday. There is a fluidity which is unknown with ideas being borne out as we go.”

The issue, however is that the viewer experience of the Unbound campaign seems fractured, breaking down everytime we are brought back to the ZTE brandscape. We move from the movable feast of the Verve and the Spro 2 campaign to the glaring utilitarianism of ZTE which is about merchandise more than meaning.

And this raises one of the central points of creating brand equity: it’s not just about addressing an information gap. It’s about filling the meaning gap. Why should I use this product, how will it move me? How will it change me? The only way to do it is to tell the brand story which ZTE isn’t doing yet.

So, what’s the solution? For one, ZTE USA could create a new portal called SproUnbound with new digital and print collateral and build it around more substantial societal and emotional brand benefits (they’ve nailed the functional benefits already). The key to the campaign would be for ZTE to listen closely to its evolving brand community. During my conversation with Chris Jordan, he evoked what a greater ZTE brand equity might look like. In his descriptions of his redoubtable ZTE phone, his continual ally during his trips to Africa, I could sense that ZTE represented a traveler or explorer archetype—a rugged, swashbuckling product that didn’t need to call attention to itself. This would create a powerful brand equity since it would represent a unique personality in the category – a counterpoint to the sheen of Apple or the all-conquering swagger of Google.

Jordan’s comments about ZTE highlight that what will ultimately affect people about ZTE or Spro2 isn’t its exhaustive list of features but its personality, its back story.

Here’s Fournier again: “Brands are animated, humanized or somehow personalized. The human activity of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects has been identified as a universal in virtually all societies. “We anthropomorphize,” Fournier tells us, “in order to facilitate interactions with the nonmaterial world.”

It’s powerful stuff.

If ZTE can harness its latent brand power and the fine work of Grayling and Nurture, it just may make the leap from white label to brand.