ZTE fights off low-end stereotype with high-end Axon phone

ZTE's new Axon phone will arrive next month in the US

ZTE's new Axon phone arrives in the U.S. next month.

ZTE's new Axon phone arrives in the U.S. next month.

Chinese brands don't always command much attention in the U.S. So when ZTE teased its newest smartphone, the Axon, it initially didn't mention the company at all.

The company's online promotions in advance of the launch just featured a mysterious high-end Android device. The marketing scheme paid off, according to Adam Zeng, CEO of ZTE's mobile devices business, sparking media interest. It even caused some to wonder if the product was Korean-made, as Chinese brands have a low-end image to U.S. consumers, according to Zeng.

ZTE was happy to clear up any preconceived notions. "Chinese brands can also come out with top-tier products," Zeng maintained.

The Axon is a premium handset that the company claims can rival flagship phones from Apple, Samsung and LG.

It is scheduled to go on sale in the U.S. in early August, and is already available for pre-order, with a no-contract price of US$449. That's about $200 less than an iPhone 6 when bought without carrier subsidies. But consumers are still getting the latest in smartphone technology.

For the Axon, this includes a 2560 by 1440 screen, an eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor, 4GB of RAM, all fitted in a sleek metal case with leather on the back cover.

Zeng noted that it took ZTE 18 months to develop the product. The company wanted to make sure it had everything, such as the ability to shoot 4K video, and a rear-facing camera with dual lenses.

ZTE kept pushing the phone's launch date back to include more features, Zeng said. It also tapped talent from North America, hiring Seattle-based design firm Teague and former BlackBerry employees to help build the product.

But even as the Axon has been made with U.S. consumers in mind, whether or not they will give it a chance is another matter.

ZTE has been expanding in the U.S. in recent years, although competition remains stiff. In this year's first quarter, it was ranked as the U.S.'s sixth largest smartphone vendor, with only a 4.5 percent market share, according to research firm IDC. Industry leaders Apple and Samsung, on the other hand, have a combined market share of 62 percent.

Brand visibility has been the key challenge for the company, Zeng said, with some consumers still unaware of the company and its products.

ZTE isn't the only Chinese company hoping to make it big in the U.S. All of the top Chinese smartphone brands are expanding globally. Rival Lenovo has acquired Motorola, giving it a strong foothold in the U.S., while Huawei and Xiaomi want to eventually build a bigger presence in the market too.

ZTE hopes the Axon will help it stand out from the crowd. The company wants to surpass LG to become the U.S.'s third largest smartphone vendor, and has given itself three years to achieve the goal.

To make that happen, ZTE is increasing its marketing, and focused on designing high quality products that can generate word-of-mouth interest. The second and third generation Axon flagship phones are already in the works, Zeng said.

"A lot of news reports say our phone can compete with Samsung's Galaxy S6," Zeng added. "I'm confident we will make great progress in North America."

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Michael Kan

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