Opinion

What is the Huawei way of dealing with a marketing and brand crisis?

How Huawei handles its current crisis will become the a benchmark for how a brand deals with losing its main ingredient and access to a global ecosystem, argues Ai.Agency's Dave McCaughan

When speed is at the core of your reputation, what happens when you have a crisis?

Take any brand and tell us that a key component is no longer safe, available or working. That means a marketing nightmare. Auto brands find out their brake system partner made a mistake and there are massive recalls. And if they are not done fast, they face a lot of criticism.

Tell us a baby formula might be tainted and kids are suffering, and the company will try to hide it, or talk it down. It takes decades to shake the reputation damage.

But the problem gets worse when you are really just a channel for delivering services that others control. Huawei is a brand built on a reputation for reaction. See something happening in the market and move super fast to change the product offering. That is what most of us think of as the Huawei way.

Sometimes, brands use another brand that forms part of their story as a security factor. Think of Intel. For decades, most of us have taken that little badge next to our keyboard for granted.

In reality, we don’t really know what it does and what difference it makes. And it won’t really make much difference to how we use our devices. It’s just a nice safety factor for us.

But what happens when you take away the software that allows us to use the device? Scratch your head and try to remember when that last happened. Whoops.

Now what? The other day when the Huawei-Google news broke – like most of you I imagine – I sat in on some weird conversations :

“Do we use our Huawei just as a voice phone and camera ?”

“No, you can’t move the photos, anyway.”

“Who makes voice calls anymore?”

“Does that mean all my WhatsApp/Wechat/Tweets/Line links and activity will disappear?”

“Should I throw it away or wait to see what happens?”

And there is the rub. Sure, there was quick news from Google that current Huawei owners would still get to use Android. Well, for now. And Huawei has announced it has its own operating system. Good luck with that. Maybe inside China. But around the world ?

Android isn’t Intel. We know all our devices use chips. We probably see that Intel brand logo as a given. But again we don’t really know what difference it makes.

But we do know what Android means and the difference it makes. Maybe not the algorithms and the way it works, but we do know it’s the language that let’s our phones do the stuff we want them to do. No Google? How can anything happen? (Okay, if you are in the Apple world you are not so worried, but you are the minority).

So now, we have a world left wondering. I asked a couple of people who work at device stores for what they thought. “Who knows?” was the obvious answer. I heard that Huawei is stopping all activity for a few weeks and gathering its agencies of all kinds for think tanks. Sure, they need to. But they also need to do it fast and get an answer.

Because it is not a normal “crisis management” situation.

As due diligence, before I sat down to write this piece, I checked the temperature around the Huawei/Google narrative. A quick analysis of all the hundreds of thousands of pieces of content on the internet told me that this is already a timeless story.

It isn’t going away, it is and will be a benchmark of how a brand deals with losing its main ingredient and access to the global ecosystem.

So far, the emotions being generated are as likely to be ‘dazed’, as ‘fear with a strong assumption of calmness’. More of the latter, because when you dig deeper, people assume something will work out. After all, how can you imagine a situation where the second biggest phone brand on the planet cannot access the world? No Google? Impossible – something will get worked out.

Depending on where you live and how long you have been aware of it, Huawei is a fast developer, a brand that has been pushy and a bit in your face. But it has always been quick to do something new and to get ahead of trends.

For many, it is the leading or maybe the only real Chinese global tech brand they can name. All of which states the obvious: just as the brand offered speed of new options, new designs and new features for most of its history, it now needs to offer speed in decision making to keep whatever relative calm currently exists.

There was a satirical article doing the rounds a while back about the boss at Huawei being fond of saying “my way or Huawei” in response to any challenge. Now, we genuinely need to know what that way is.

Dave McCaughan is Ai.agency’s chief strategy officer – he is based in Thailand and has spent more than 25 years in Asia as a strategy planner

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