New phone designed, named and launched by ZTE's fan base

4 January 2017 by Steve Blum
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It takes a crowd to stand out in a crowd.

ZTE is crowdsourcing its brand strategy, along with product design and test marketing. Based in China, the company has been in business for nearly twenty years, and selling in the U.S. in a meaningful way for ten years.

On the consumer side, it’s a smartphone maker. But it’s also a major telecoms infrastructure player, including mobile infrastructure. Company executives didn’t say much about that aspect of the business today during a media presentation at CES, except to drop some hints about developing 5G infrastructure in tandem with consumer products, and to say that their plan is to develop technology that will allow 5G service to be deployed on 4G networks. Whether that means a forklift upgrade of current technology or just adding nominally 5G features to existing LTE service is a question still to be answered.

As a consumer brand, ZTE’s products are solid enough, but don’t stand out. The company doesn’t have world domination on its road map like Samsung, or the premium brand ambitions (or at least not the budget) of Huawei. It showed the obligatory virtual reality-capable smart phone, but depends on Google’s Daydream VR platform for hardware and content.

To break out of the Apple/Samsung chase pack, ZTE is counting on an online consumer fan base for brand differentiation. One of the new smart phones it introduced this afternoon – the Hawkeye – was designed and named in an online contest. Instead of trotting out an engineering vice president, they had the four guys who won the design contest stand up and take a bow. It’s still a work in progress and all they had onsite was a mock up, so they’re launching the phone on Kickstarter with a discounted $200 price and a promised delivery date sometime in the third quarter of this year.

This crowd sourcing strategy centers on an online forum that ZTE says has 12,000 members, some of whom are hot enough about the company to fly out to Las Vegas for the presentation. That earned them recognition from company execs too. It’s common enough for tech companies to cultivate online communities, but not to turn product management over to those fans. ZTE might have found a way to truly differentiate itself as a consumer brand.