Lenovo strengthening brand
Dateline: BEIJING —
Yao Yingjia claims his favorite Lenovo-designed computer is the 7-year-old Tianxi model. But Yao, general manager of Lenovo Group's Innovation Design Center in Beijing, uses an IBM Thinkpad X Series Tablet laptop.
He describes the computer as "very useful" for his work because of the tablet function. In response to critics' acceptance of the Lenovo Thinkpad brand, which Lenovo acquired with the 2004 purchase of IBM's personal computing unit, he remarks, "The brand is very successful. The design is good and Thinkpad has led its markets segment for 20 years."
The Tianxi remains Yao's favorite because it represents the development of a new business model for Lenovo, a key to making the company a global player in the consumer PC market.
Released in 1998 after two years of research and development, the computer established Lenovo as the leader in the home PC market in China with its pastel-colored, shell-shaped central processing unit, a USB hub with seven ports under the screen, and the Lenovo keyboard dial for faster Internet connection. Lenovo coupled the design and hardware innovations with a co-branding package involving one year of free Internet service from China Telecom upon purchase of the Tianxi.
At the time, computers were just becoming commonplace in homes in China's major cities. The business model of melding consumer tastes for design, supporting the design with innovative technology and rounding off the package with culturally savvy marketing, made Lenovo the unabashed leader in China's PC market.
The company's newest models follow a similar business strategy. On Nov. 29, Lenovo released a sexy, red laptop, the Tianyi F20, in Hong Kong. The Tianyi F20 supports a three-cell battery and a six-cell battery solving one of laptop users' top worries, battery life. The six-cell battery attaches to the back of the computer making the product tilt forward slightly for more comfortable typing position. The Tianyi recently won Germany's iF product design award for 2006.
Andy Switky, managing director of Shanghai operations for Palo Alto, Calif.-based product design and development firm IDEO, said, "Lenovo is one of a handful of companies [in China] that seem to be getting it right." Design is one-third of the equation
In a Nov. 30 interview at his office in Beijing, Yao explained that design plays an important role in Lenovo's success, but it is difficult to assess the value in numbers.
"Let me give you an example: In the week after the Tianxi was released, Lenovo's shares on the Hong Kong market doubled, but design is only part of it. There is also speed to market and technology, which are important. Design makes up one-third," he said. "Design is part of Lenovo's success because it attracts customers."
Yao is not a designer who worries about every design's effect on the company's stock price. Clearly, the entire design process is his primary focus. This starts with "material as a road map," and also involves communicating with the design team, researching user needs, and making the first molds in the Lenovo Innovation Design Center's labs in Beijing. The first floor of the three-story center is dedicated to materials. Brainstorming occurs in a room with three full walls of materials, ranging from children's toys and bits of cloth to high-grade plastics used for computer casings.
"We say this room is half dream and half reality," said Yao. He explains that the lead designer may have an innovative idea for material use, but the engineer may find the suggested material impractical and veto the designer's choice.
Lenovo, which was known as Legend Computer Co. Ltd. up until early 2004, uses GE Plastics as its main supplier for plastic materials. Another lab holds a room of color chips from GE Plastics and other suppliers, as well as Lenovo's own designs. Across the corridor, two engineers sit, one...