Why Lenovo needs Ashton Kutcher

The actor, who played Steve Jobs in a recent biopic, is rumored to near a deal with Lenovo to be the face of the brand. Here's why it matters.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor
Photo illustration: Andrew Nusca

It's not easy being a massive, faceless Chinese company in the U.S. market.

For all of Lenovo's successes—it came out of nowhere to purchase IBM's personal computer division, then rode it to such dizzying heights that it surpassed Hewlett-Packard as No. 1 in global shipments—the company remains less than a household name.

Sure, the technologists who read ZDNet know Lenovo quite well, partially because of its ownership of the ThinkPad brand. But regular U.S. consumers? Not so much.

The company signaled its intentions way back in 2005. "We wanted to create a global company and a global brand. And the quickest way of doing it was through acquiring a brand like IBM," then-chairman Yuanqing Yang told The Economic Times.

The company succeeded in its plan to ensure continuity from IBM to Lenovo in the PC arena, but in the years that ensued, it has not quite formed a cohesive public identity. (Why? Focused on selling to corporate and not commercial accounts, it didn't need one.)

In 2011, China Daily wrote that the company sought to be one of the top three brands in major markets worldwide within "a few years"—the "Nike" of the PC industry, chief marketing officer David Roman told The China Post.

So here we are, eight years later. U.S. hardware rivals Hewlett-Packard and Dell have both since indicated their desire to become enterprise-focused software and services companies as the PC market falls off a cliff. Smelling blood in the consumer space (and budgetary fear in the business space), Lenovo seeks to double down on its efforts to sell tablet computers, mobile phones and home entertainment products—all the devices that we suspect are supplanting traditional consumer PCs—in the U.S.

Which means Lenovo suddenly needs a public face here. A compelling story. A strong emotion that the brand elicits.

Yet it is still unfamiliar, despite all those sales.

And that's where Ashton Kutcher comes in. The New York Post reports this morning that the 35-year-old actor is on the cusp of signing a $10 million endorsement deal to appear in Lenovo advertisements. (His circa-2009 collaboration with Nikon has since soured.)

It's quite a choice for Lenovo: Kutcher recently played Steve Jobs in the Jobs biopic, garnering techie praise, and currently stars in the popular CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, which typically ranks among the top 10 television shows and appeals to a broad audience. (Disclosure: ZDNet is owned by CBS Corp.) If there's a shortlist for inoffensive young celebrities that would appeal to as many Americans as possible, Kutcher would likely be on it.

At the same time, Lenovo has signaled that it plans to enter the U.S. smartphone market within the year. (The company is the No. 2 phone maker in China.) Its two-year-old "For Those Who Do" global branding campaign continues to chug along, but probably needs a shot in the arm. Enter Kutcher.

Yang acknowledged his company's need in its 2012/2013 annual report:

And we will continue to invest in our "For Those Who Do" brand campaign to further increase awareness in our brand and drive growth worldwide. The continued strengthening of our brand will make us more competitive in the consumer space and enhance the value of our products, leading to improved profitability.

But he really gives it a nod in the sentence that follows: "Already, our brand has reached new heights, but in the coming year we must truly establish ourselves as a global consumer and commercial brand of choice in the PC+ space."

At $10 million, Kutcher is a drop in the bucket for Lenovo. He's also entirely necessary.

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