- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Cingular Wireless this month added the smallest camera flip-phone on the market to its products lineup.

It’s not from Finland’s Nokia or the United States’ Motorola, the world’s top two wireless handset manufacturers. It’s the Pantech C300.

Pantech Co. is the No. 2 cell phone company in South Korea, after Samsung Electronics Co.

“I don’t know if Pantech means a lot today,” said Glenn Lurie, Cingular’s president of national distribution. “But we were looking for something new, something exclusive. We were impressed with what they brought to us.”

Asian companies that have toiled as anonymous manufacturers or are little known in North America are increasingly aiming to impress U.S. consumers with products sold under their own brand names.

And many — from South Korea, China, the Philippines and other countries — are ready to burst onto the scene, said Martin Roll, chief executive of VentureRepublic, an advisory firm on branding, and author of “Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands.”

“I think Western brands and manufacturers should be worried about this. I think we are going to get exposed to a wide range of products — industrial, fashion, hospitality, entertainment, luxury, cosmetics, technology — coming from Asian companies,” Mr. Roll said.

“They are not going to be trend followers. They will be trendsetters,” he added.

Asian companies like Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp. already are industry leaders and popular with U.S. consumers. Mr. Roll said up-and-coming brands include Korean companies like Pantech and cosmetics retailer the Face Shop, which opened its first U.S. store in October.

Chinese companies include computer manufacturer Lenovo and Li-Ning Co., a sports apparel maker that in January signed an agreement with Cleveland Cavaliers guard Damon Jones. Mr. Jones wears Li-Ning basketball shoes on NBA courts.

“The Li-Ning brand has an oriental flavor which makes me unique on the court,” Mr. Jones said in January.

The Philippines has restaurant franchise Jollibee, which has made inroads in California. And Singapore boasts Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts, a chain of boutique hotels that has grown into one of Asia’s most successful hospitality brands.

The companies are innovative and confident, while adding marketing savvy and cultural touches honed in Asian markets, Mr. Roll said. “It is beyond just a little wave that will fade away after a couple of years. It is here to stay.”

Pantech was, outside Korea, an anonymous manufacturer that sold phones under other brand names, including Verizon’s PN210 and PN215. It entered Asian, Latin American and European markets in 2004, and the U.S. in 2005 with Pantech-branded phones, said Bryant Martin, director of channel marketing for the company.

“Ideally we want to put the Pantech name in as many places as we can,” Mr. Martin said. “We reached the point where we are ready to take that step.”

Pantech last year sold about 7 million phones in the U.S. under other brand names. With a foot in the door at Cingular, the largest wireless company in the U.S., and Disney Mobile, Pantech this year hopes to increase that number by 20 percent. That would raise U.S. sales revenue to about $5 billion.

Cingular, which also sells popular Motorola, Nokia, Samsung and other brands, sees Pantech not as a low-end, low-cost model, but as an attractive and innovative addition to its lineup.

“It may be an iconic product,” Mr. Lurie said.

The United States, though, can be a difficult market for upstarts.

Chinese computer manufacturer Lenovo, for example, has struggled. Last year the company bought IBM’s personal computer division and gained rights to the ThinkPad name. It has since lost market share amid gains by American Hewlett-Packard Inc. and Taiwan’s Acer Inc.

“I think that unfortunately they have not been doing as well as they had hoped,” said Leslie Fiering, research vice president at Gartner Inc., a research and advisory company to the tech industry.

Ms. Fiering said that Lenovo has maintained good quality and value for it’s U.S. products, but has failed to develop inroads with retailers and resellers, limiting access to consumers and businesses.

“Customers have not really seen the name out there enough to believe it is credible and real,” she said.

Mr. Roll acknowledged that not all Asian companies hunting for a share of the U.S. market will prosper. But he said it would be naive to discount them.

“Western companies really have to take this seriously,” he said.

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