Throughout the US/China trade tensions of recent years, a spotlight has continually been shone on Chinese telecoms equipment and handset maker Huawei.
US lawmakers have repeatedly alleged ties between the company and the Chinese government, labelling the brand's products as a security and espionage risk. And this image has only been reinforced by the 2018 high-profile arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada on a provisional US extradition request regarding alleged breaches of US sanctions against Iran.
Caught between its domestic loyalties and overseas ambitions, the brand has become a whipping boy for anti-Chinese sentiment in the West and a perhaps over-glorified symbol of China's rise in the East. This creates a challenge for those trying to create a new global brand leadership narrative for Huawei, a building process that was well under way before trade tensions derailed it.
Chris Pereira, senior director of public affairs at Huawei Canada, is one of those grappling with the new reality. "We are always unsatisfied with the current situation," he told Campaign Asia-Pacific in a recent interview.
Canada is a good example of Huawei's evolving efforts to reset the brand. In 2017, it became lead sponsor of Hockey Night in Canada, with its nightly TV audience of 2.4 million – a sponsorship that runs until 2020. The sponsorship unnerved many Canadians still suspicious of the brand, even leading to a Change.org petition to remove it.
From big to small
So Huawei is trying another tactic in Canada, reaching out locally, with activity such as its "Connect the north" video project to bring awareness to the importance of connecting rural and remote communities. Last year, Huawei went to Canada's Arctic, spending several weeks in remote settlements to show how its communication equipment can help change people's lives.
The project, done in co-operation with local mobile network partner Ice Wireless, highlighted the lives of several residents of the city of Iqaluit and interviewed dozens of people in the town of Inuvik.
While trying to change people's stereotype of a brand linked to the Chinese government, Huawei is localising efforts in every market to make the brand more local-friendly. "Local branding teams have a lot of freedom when making decisions," Pereira explained. "Huawei now has different branding strategies in different countries. It is quite different from 10 years ago, when the company was focusing on delivering one message across the world."
Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei had a lot of influence in the company's original branding strategies. Ren always referred to its "wolf spirit" in his speeches, meaning living amid extreme competition with the instinct to survive. "Huawei's branding strategy is always inspired by Ren," Pereira said. "Ren has big ambitions and influenced the brand to push itself further every time, to think that anything is possible."
Between overseas reputation challenges and Covid-19, Huawei has had a challenging year. But Pereira saw it as an opportunity too. He felt it is important for brands to stay active during difficult times. "The 'Connect the north' project shows that Huawei is still doing things," Pereira said, noting that it will begin work on the next "Connect the north" project soon.
A version of this story first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific