Nubia Seems Too Innocent for the Horrors of America

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BERLIN—Having a good phone isn't good enough anymore, and I'm worried that Nubia, ZTE's little sibling, doesn't really understand that.

Nubia used this year's IFA trade show as a global coming out for its Z11 smartphone (pictured here), which was released in China earlier this summer. The Z11 hits all the marks for a mid-to-high-end smartphone: Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, a 5.5-inch 1080p screen, and a bezel-less design with glass that waterfalls a little over the edges of the phone, similar to the Z9 Classic.

The Z11 is going to be Nubia's first truly global product, according to general manager Leo Tang, and the US is a "priority" country for the company. But as Tang evaded almost all of my questions about marketing in the US, I just couldn't keep from thinking: They're going to get eaten alive—or worse for them—forgotten as if they never existed.

Z11 right

Nubia's press conference was a classic example of a Chinese company with big dreams that hasn't really hired a US team. Its demo videos were awkward, because they had a stentorian announcer reading out lines in broken, often ungrammatical English. Any native speaker could have fixed them.

The Z11 will also hit European retail at around $515, unlocked. But in the US, it's going to have to compete with ZTE's own Axon 7, Huawei's Honor 8, the OnePlus 3, and Nexus phones, all of which settle in the $400 range. When I asked Tang why people should spend more, he pointed out the phone's Android skin and camera modes, which...well, let me just say Americans don't pay more for Android skins and camera modes, no matter whether or not you can take long exposures and do "light painting."

Tang also couldn't express a marketing plan, other than "be yourself," and "we wish our smartphone will be the everyday carry of the high flier." Everyone wishes that. HTC wished that so hard it spent $100 million buying Robert Downey Jr. And HTC makes great phones. HTC's US market share is now somewhere below 5 percent.

Tang said the Z11 will be sold unlocked online, and that "our 'be yourself' philosophy and innovative technology and product will attract a lot of consumers to love us." In a US market where only 10 percent of phones are sold unlocked, and that 10 percent is a brutally competitive segment, wishes aren't horses. I know of two phone companies that Tang's plan has worked for in the US: OnePlus has breathtaking guerrilla marketing chops, and Blu has low prices and a killer distribution network. I'm not seeing either of those advantages from Nubia right now.

We'll have a full review of the Nubia Z11 soon. But making a good phone, if you're a new brand in the US, just isn't good enough. Nubia needs to understand that, and I don't think it does.

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