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How Lenovo is taking its brand beyond tech innovation

David Roman, Lenovo CMO / Lenovo

Engineers founded Lenovo. Essentially, it’s a legacy engineering company with a very forward face in the technology world. But that world is bringing the China-based company to the forefront of the consumer world as well and that transition is making it evolve its marketing in a fairly substantial way.

David Roman, senior VP and CMO of Lenovo, leads the marketing at a company so well-known but without a flashy presence, which he admits is a challenge.

“From a marketing standpoint, and a branding standpoint, the downside of that is that it's not very clear for anybody what Lenovo stands for. Each product has its own identity and, in fact, in the early days, each product would have a different name,” said Roman.

IBM went through something similar – a technology giant with not a ton of personality becoming a modern player – until they started promoting Watson. With Lenovo, Roman sees plenty of opportunities to take it to the next level.

“Now we have become a $50 billion company — and Lenovo has to be tighter in terms of what we stand for and what we represent. When you look at people buying technology today, especially millennials, they expect to have a relationship with the brand. They expect to know about the company. They want the company to share their values. There's a broader set of things than just the technology itself. Especially now as we move into cloud-based solutions, there's an expectation of trust and how the company is going to maintain privacy and security,” he said.

A heritage of technology

Lenovo had humble beginnings by some very smart engineers. It was founded by Liu Chuanzhi and a group of 10 engineers working out of a one-story bungalow in Beijing in 1984. Lenovo was just a small government-funded venture that distributed and installed foreign computers to Chinese households.

Current CEO, Yang Yuanqing, was one of the company’s interns in the early days and saw the company’s early failures, such as attempts to import televisions and market digital watches. Luckily, those failures were erased by an early success of the development of a circuit board, which enabled IBM personal computers to process Chinese characters. After years of trial and error, the company gained a foothold in the early personal computer industry by selling computers under its own Lenovo name.

As the company grew, it sought to be a global company, offering an IPO and striving to speak English, even at its Chinese headquarters. Innovation was still at the heart of the company as it won awards for design, connectivity and innovations like one-key internet access. The company even put out a video several years back highlighting its technical successes.

In 2004, Lenovo had a very public success, coming to an agreement with IBM to acquire its personal computing division to form the world’s largest PC business, including the successful ThinkPad laptop and tablet lines.

Real marketing, however, still eluded the company comprised of scientists and engineers. David Roman was poised to help change that.

Building a more public face on a global scale

Roman developed a global business view by first studying architecture in Torino, Italy and then graduating from Queensland University of Technology in Australia and getting his MBA at INSEAD in Paris. He worked in various roles for Apple, including marketing leadership in Europe, Asia Pacific and the US. He served as VP corporate and international marketing for NVIDIA, then, as VP of worldwide marketing for HP, he helped develop the award-winning "The Computer is Personal Again" campaign.

He came to Lenovo in 2010 with a perspective that allowed him to help lift Lenovo up past its engineering roots.

Roman said that the company is great with technology, including the acquisition of the Motorola and IBM server business, but that it is confusing from a brand standpoint, especially with a global company as large as it is. But inroads are being made to embrace branding.

“The engineering perspective obviously is looking at the world in terms of the technology. The marketing perspective is looking at the world from the outside in,” said Roman. “I do think though what's happened is that the balance has shifted a bit and now, more and more, the decisions are made from a customer perspective rather than from a technology perspective. I think that's a logical evolution.”

The company has come up with a “multi-business operating system,” where it reviews the market in terms of two different dimensions. One is the maturity of the business, like the PC business, which is a mature business generating profits. To the other extreme is a complete investment business, where the company looks at something speculative like the things they are doing with the Internet of Things (IoT) and competes with what startups are doing in its incubator group.

Despite its size and maturity in some areas, Lenovo even sees itself differently than some other large technology companies and very much as a “challenger brand.”

“We love being a challenger brand. Years ago there was very much this idea that if you were a leader, you'd do certain things, you'll behave in a certain way. Business is changing so rapidly that if anybody believes that they are leader and they don't have to challenge the status quo, they're dead, because somebody else is certainly going to challenge them and do it. I think at our best, we work well when we move quickly. We innovate quickly, we change quickly. Challenging ourselves, even in positions where we do have a market leadership position right now, we're very conscious that it's very fragile. That could disappear tomorrow and it could be a new business model. It could be a new technology. It could be a shift in terms of what customers are doing,” said Roman.

When it comes to embracing branding and marketing, the company now has some premium programs that utilize the name – Lenovo Moto for mobile phones, Lenovo Think for professional and commercial space, Lenovo Yoga for the new generation of PCs and phablets, and Lenovo Legion for its gaming brand. Many were highlighted at the recent CES in Las Vegas. The key is tying them all together so they don’t seem like one-offs.

“We've got different products obviously, but it is all part of the Lenovo family. It will be much tighter at doing that. The brand idea that we're using is actually building on this technology heritage and trying to translate that into a customer benefit in that we say, ‘because we innovate so much, we do things differently.’ That ‘different,’ when it works well, is better. ‘Different is better’ is a very big focus on innovation, a very big focus also on being more aware of what our customers are doing so it's not just the product itself that is innovative, it allows the customer to do things differently and better,” he said.

The Legion gaming platform may very well be where Lenovo finds its consumer-facing brand footing.

Legion poised for the future

In high-end gaming, Roman sees a technology platform for virtual reality that plays right into Lenovo’s innovative heritage. It’s one where heavy-duty graphics, major processing and lots of memory, plus hardcore gamers who are looking for companies that push the technology envelope, are perfect for the company’s development teams. Developing augmented reality technology for the near future is key for Lenovo, which has practical applications on the commercial side, such as repair manuals that highlight the actual engine you are fixing, or a project they did with Google called Tango, which incorporates infrared sensors on a smartphone to be able to measure a room. Virtual reality requires a lot of processing power but is more suited towards the gaming technology.

Aside from AR and VR, Lenovo is looking at different ways to incorporate interactive technology, including voice control, gesturing and even mind control.

“Most of these things actually happen in gaming first because gamers are so focused on having new and better ways to interact and to engage with the game. It's a perfect place to actually try out some of those new technologies, to learn about and develop them more. It's a place where we want to be from a technology perspective anyway. It helps that the brand and gaming products tend to be pretty extreme, a little bit like sports cars for some car manufactures. It is in its own right a very healthy market and a good market. Not huge, but it's a good market,” Roman added.

Roman sees that consumers have become much more technically savvy, and that marketing to them requires companies like Lenovo to combine their innovative nature with marketing to uncover what is truly of value to them. They must avoid commoditization and focus on what it takes to get consumers excited about products, like Apple used to in the Steve Jobs days.

“It used to be that if you focused, you didn't have scale. Now, I think you can have both. I think manufacturing has changed, the supply chain has changed. Certainly the way in which we deliver the products through the internet has changed,” said Roman, who added that people are looking for a customized experience, like the one they have with their Moto Maker, which customizes smartphones for the user.

In the future, Roman thinks that technology will remain about the next cool thing and how engaging and effective that thing is.

“Next year we certainly will be talking about 5G. 5G means that all of our devices will be connected at a speed that is ten times that we have today. That changes everything because if you don't have to connect, if that is happening all the time, consistently at a very high speed and any device of any size is connected up and they're all talking to one another – that changes completely the usage.”

When the speed does become the norm, no doubt Lenovo will be among the leaders, and Roman will be the one heading up the marketing of that innovation.

Additional reporting by Doug Zanger

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