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Under-the-radar phone giant Honor has its eye on the US

The president of China's Honor speaks to CNET about his plan to get into the US without sacrificing his company's identity.

The Honor 7X is the latest phone to make its way to the US. 
Josh Miller/CNET

Stop me if you've heard this one before: A Chinese phone maker riding a bit of buzz wants to make a splash in the US market.

There are the ceaseless rumors that Xiaomi, once the most valuable startup in the world, will eventually come here. Alcatel, Huawei and ZTE have spent years trying to break into the market in a meaningful way. Upstart OnePlus has made a dent with hardcore Android users. Last year saw Chinese media conglomerate LeEco try -- and fail spectacularly -- to sell phones. 

And then there's Honor, which is a quasi-independently run brand under massive Chinese telecom infrastructure supplier and phone maker Huawei (the brands co-exist like Toyota and Lexus). The company said at a splashy CES press conference at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Las Vegas on Sunday that it will sell two of its latest phones, the Honor 7X and the Honor View 10, in the US directly to consumers later this year

Now playing: Watch this: Huawei Honor 7X sizzles in red

At the same time, Honor President George Zhao laid out his strategy of getting into the US: He'll first appeal to customers, then lean on that buzz to get a carrier or two to work with him. 

Honor marks the latest in a wave of Chinese companies coming to the US with the promise of cheap phones packed with higher-end specifications or appealing features such as dual cameras and fingerprint sensors. For consumers, the influx of such companies means more quality options from the midrange to the low end, particularly for anyone willing to do some homework. But Honor faces the same challenge as did ZTE, Alcatel and its parent, Huawei: a lack of recognition beyond the most savvy and hardcore Android fans. 

But Zhao said he's focused on fostering interest with US customers through his products. 

"We want to build our reputation with the consumer," Zhao said in an interview following the press conference. 

Zhao has some lofty goals. The company generates 85 percent of sales in China, where it's the No. 2 brand behind Apple, but it wants to get half of its sales from outside of China by 2022. 

The US market could help with that, but it's a tricky proposition. Most US consumers buy their phones from their carriers, who strike partnerships with phone makers and require them to tweak their phones to meet the carriers' standards. 

At least for now, Honor has no intention of following those carrier requirements.

"If you follow the operator requirements, you will lose yourself," Zhao said. 

Now playing: Watch this: Huawei's Honor View 10 phone searches for the sweet spot

That spells out the dilemma for most Chinese makers trying to reach mainstream awareness. They're either unable or unwilling to partner with a big carrier in a meaningful way, and are often left out of a phone discussion dominated by Apple and Samsung. With customers often relying on their carrier for recommendations, companies like Honor miss out on a massive chunk of the market. 

Zhao does plan on eventually partnering with a carrier, but said he hoped for a more equal relationship with an operator that understands and appreciates its model. He declined to offer a timeline on when Honor would start talking with the carriers. 

For now, Honor will rely on its own site,, as well as engagement with Android fan sites, to spur interest in its brand. 

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