Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, not content with its under-the-radar reputation in the US, is taking matters into its own hands with a direct-to-consumer retail website.
The company on Thursday launched GetHuawei.com, a site where US consumers can purchase the Ascend Mate 2 4G LTE, its flagship smartphone/tablet -- or as some say, phablet. Consumers have the option of buying the 6.1-inch phone unlocked, or purchasing a plan through wireless reseller partner Net 10, which operates on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks.
Huawei sees GetHuawei.com as an essential tool for raising its profile in the US. While it is the world's third-largest smartphone vendor by market share, it's virtually unknown here. Huawei's top-tier smartphones have largely been ignored by US carriers, which have opted to stick with its budget smartphones. By circumventing the carriers with its website, the company hopes to build word-of-mouth cred for the quality of its higher-end smartphones.
"This is the only way we can truly deliver a device we strongly believe the consumer wants," Michael Chuang, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Huawei's US division, said in an interview.But the strategy of selling directly to consumers has yielded disappointing results in the past. High-profile companies such as Nokia and Sony have sold some of Huawei's smartphones in the US, but never really made a dent beyond a niche crowd of enthusiasts.
To his credit, Chuang has realistic expectations for GetHuawei.com, and sees it as more of a marketing tactic than a vehicle for significant sales.
"It's not a revenue generator -- not yet," he said. "It is a way to enhance our brand."
Chuang made it clear -- several times -- that Huawei was not abandoning its strategy of working with US carriers to supply smartphones.
"We're very loyal to our partners," he said. "We respect their strategy."
The Ascend Mate 2 isn't just a global smartphone it dumped on the website, Chuang argued, noting that the phone's processor, specifications, apps, and its user interface were tweaked for US consumers. The smartphone, which is only compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile's networks, is the only product on its website for now.
The smartphone will retail for an unlocked price of $299. For the first 10 days, Huawei is throwing in a free smart cover and one month of service with its wireless partner.
Huawei won't be listing all of its smartphones on the website. The Ascend Mate 2 is the only phone listed now. While Chuang teased more products to come, he said he would be selective in bringing the appropriate products to the site.
"We're not going to put anything there just to generate sales," he said.
Huawei has hired 15 people dedicated to managing customer service and the website.
The company has been attempting to follow the playbook laid out by other Asian vendors, including Samsung and HTC, slowly building up its credibility with the US carriers until it gets a shot with a heavily promoted flagship smartphone.
But unlike those other companies, Huawei has had to deal with the baggage of alleged ties to the Chinese government that have resulted in its networking equipment being banned in the US, UK, and Australia.
Huawei has consistently denied the allegation, and continues to work with many other countries around the world. The concerns have also never been extended to its mobile devices business.
It's unclear whether those concerns have hampered its standing with average consumers -- Huawei has trouble just getting noticed. In a survey the company took two years ago, only 9 percent of the respondents said they recognized the name. Another survey taken at the end of 2013 found its recognition rose slightly, nabbing 22 percent of respondents.
Still, it has a long way to go. Huawei has sponsored events such as the Jonas Brothers concert tour, and was the exclusive electronic sponsor for "Thor: The Dark World," all in a bid to get its name out in the public.
Huawei has been teasing its new site with social media advertising, and Chuang said the company plans a more traditional campaign down the line.
"We put in a lot of work on brand development because we understand we're a new player here," he said.