How Huawei recovered its brand reputation after ‘bombshell’ ban

Having swapped PR for marketing, Huawei’s Winston Eavis admits “it’s not that easy”, but his background in crisis management has helped the Chinese tech brand navigate a difficult year.

HuaweiChinese technology firm Huawei says its brand reputation is back to “normal levels” after suffering a “bombshell” last July when the UK government ordered operators to remove its equipment from 5G networks.

After a technical review by the National Cyber Security Centre, companies were banned from buying Huawei equipment at the end of last year, and all existing Huawei parts are to be removed from the 5G infrastructure by 2027.

Marketing director Winston Eavis, who took on the top marketing job in the UK when former CMO Andrew Garrihy departed earlier this year, says the brand’s recovery has been aided as a result of the consumer experience Huawei delivers.

“Last year was a tricky year. We didn’t expect the reaction from the UK government and nor did we particularly seek to change it, because there are some things you just can’t touch. We’re not a political organisation,” says Eavis, speaking to Marketing Week at the ‘Unlock Possibilities’ products launch.

“What we did do was prepare for it and anticipate it. Midway through the year there was falling consumer confidence. The good thing was, because so many people own our devices – and nothing tells your story better than actually owning one of our devices – that [our reputation] bounced back after a steep decline. By the end of the year, we were back up beyond where we were at the beginning.”

Data from YouGov’s BrandIndex shows the brand’s reputation fell to a low of -17.6 in August but recovered significantly to -6.2 by October and currently stands at -3.8.

We all sat there going, ‘well I could do that job’ and ‘it’d be easy’. Turns out it’s not that easy. But you learn a huge amount as you go.

Winston Eavis, Huawei

Eavis describes the government’s decision as a “bombshell” particularly as he had not long been in the role, but says the experience provided a great platform for him and the brand to be “incredibly driven and resilient”.

“A lot of businesses don’t operate at the same sort of speed or see the change of pace that we’ve had to operate in. So, having a standard marketing playbook or marketing rules of engagement is useful but what happens when a bombshell hits you and you get parts of your business banned in your own country?

“The adaptability to be able to survive in that kind of environment, that’s the big thing I’ve learned. The resilience and the kind of character of our business shone through – in the tough times we never stopped believing and understanding where we are.”

Changing the narrative

Key to the brand’s recovery was continuing business as usual and showcasing agility. Eavis recalls spearheading plans to open Huawei’s first UK own-brand store in Westfield’s Stratford shopping centre, and a retail space and service centre in Manchester, all backed by a £10m investment.

“It’s something we were planning to do anyway later in the year. I spoke to my boss, the CEO and other people in the business and said, ‘look we’re going to do this. This is an incredible validation of what we’re here in the UK to do. Just pull it forward and tell people now’.”

He says the narrative changed “almost overnight”, with people seemingly impressed that despite the negative press Huawei was still opening stores.

“The cost is the price of setting up some new stores but we were doing that anyway. In terms of the way that [impacted] our brand reputation, the rebound was immediate,” he says.

Huawei shifts global marketing focus to long-term brand buildingAs a result, Eavis claims the under-fire brand managed to retain more than 500,000 customers in the UK.

“I think that’s the base priority [retain existing consumer base] of any business in our sector. If you can keep, maintain and continue to sell other devices to the people who already [use the brand] you don’t need to worry about huge growth because you get rid of the churn factor,” explains Eavis.

In harmony with influencers

Earlier this week Huawei unveiled the second iteration and full consumer version of its proprietary operating system HarmonyOS, which will be installed on new smartphones and its ecosystem of gadgets.

Huawei originally used Google’s Android OS for its smartphones and was mounting competition against market share incumbents Samsung and Apple. But the US government added Huawei to a list banning domestic firms from dealing with foreign companies that are deemed a threat to national security.

The Chinese manufacturer then invested in the development of HarmonyOS and last year pledged £20m to build up its ecosystem at its first developer conference in the UK.

Huawei has unveiled a host of new products including its wireless earbuds.

Supporting the operating system is nearly 100 products, such as the MateView GT gaming monitor, Watch 3 Series wearable range, wireless headphones the FreeBuds 4, and MatePad Pro tablet.

Central to the marketing of its new operating system and devices will be the use of influencers, says Eavis.

“We use a lot of [influencers], the vast majority of them unpaid. They come because they are fans of the brand. They’re really keen to understand what we do and we leverage a lot of the content they produce because it’s genuine fan content, it’s actually people who are genuinely interested in what we’re doing so we’re drawing from that a lot,” says Eavis.

“That’s one big way that we try and get a much more credible voice at the heart of it. I think seeing models in TV campaigns is interesting and aspirational but that’s not very relatable. I think seeing people in your Instagram feed or TikTok feels a lot more personal.”

Huawei will be measuring the success of the campaign through key KPIs such as reputation and word of mouth.

Public relations to marketing

Prior to joining Huawei, Eavis (pictured, above) was Samsung’s director of communications for almost three years, switching to the Chinese brand in 2017 to head up PR initially.

He has experience managing brands through times of crisis, after handling the furore when defective Samsung Note 7 smartphones were recalled after a number exploded.

After realising he had gone “as far as I was going to go” as director of public relations for Huawei, he was promoted to marketing director for the UK in February 2020 and jokes he now has to “learn marketing”.

“I’ve spent the last eight to nine years in-house at big organisations working within big marketing teams, and that gives you a source of comfort and confidence when you see the top job and you interact with the CMO all the time.

“We all sat there going, ‘well I could do that job’ and ‘it’d be easy’. Turns out it’s not that easy. But you learn a huge amount as you go. It’s been a year to remember and I’m still learning massive amounts, especially during a testing period.

“It actually seems better to learn while you’re in the middle of a testing period. We’re not very good at standing still, we try to keep everything moving,” says Eavis.