I woke up on 20th May 2019 to the news that Google had barred Huawei from access to many of its apps and services. For me, this was the first ‘wow’ moment related to the mobile industry since Motorola was acquired by Google in 2012.
A new force in the mobile industry
Huawei’s growth in the mobile handset market has been remarkable. According to IDC, the company increased from little more than 10% global market share to almost 20% in a single year between Q1 2018 and Q1 2019. Before the 20th May decision, Huawei was ahead of Apple in the smartphone market and behind only Samsung. Its numbers were only going one way.
Of course, this was significantly helped by huge popularity in its home territory of China, but a cursory browse of the high street mobile stores shows Huawei and its Honor brand as one of only three smartphone manufacturers represented in any significant way. Only three years ago the brand had no presence outside its home territory.
It is hard to think of any single act that could have so significantly derailed the company’s progress as Google’s announcement in May. My wife has a 12-month-old Huawei P20. Nothing could have tempted her away from the brand. Now, less than two weeks later she is already planning a move to Google Pixel.
How does Huawei build trust?
Huawei clearly saw this, or something similar, coming. Google the term ‘Huawei Facts’ and you will see that the company has been working extremely hard to convince people that it is an entirely independent company and not, as feared by many, an extension of the Chinese government.
The suspicions around Huawei can easily be mitigated by rationale. Why do we trust a company from China less than we do one from Sweden (such as Ericsson) or Finland (Nokia) to make our mobile networks? And if we do not trust products made in China, should we not stop buying iPhones and almost every television set on the market? Unfortunately for Huawei, public perception does not come from a rational place. Accusations morph into perceived facts incredibly quickly.
The company had an ambition to become the biggest smartphone manufacturer in the world. Its most recent products have been widely lauded as the best on the market. Yet having the biggest ambition and the best products will not be enough without a massive effort to change public perception. The company has defied the odds before, but it will need to come up with an outstanding communications strategy to overcome this latest setback.