A Torch Lights the Way for Lenovo

By going after a look that sought to meld the Olympics with Chinese culture, the computer maker is winning by design

Lenovo (LNVGF), the world's No. 3 PC maker, has been experimenting with bold colors and graphic images in its home market of China for years. Now it's beginning to strut its stuff on the world stage. On Aug. 6, Lenovo will unveil a limited-edition notebook PC that uses some of the same design elements featured in its winning design for the Olympic torch.

The company will also announce an online auction on eBay (EBAY) where it will sell Olympic Torch PCs each week until the Beijing Games begin next August. The auctions will start in February, timed to sync up with the Olympic torch relay, when the flame will be carried by runners across five continents. Proceeds from the auction of 39 laptops will go to charity.

The Olympic Torch PC, a version of Lenovo's Tianyi notebook line for consumers, is black and red, with a decorative cloud motif on the top cover. Some of the 2,044 notebooks that are being produced will be signed by as yet unidentified Olympic athletes. "We don't just want to create machines for customers; we want to create emotional experiences. We want to connect them with the Olympic spirit," says Yao Yingjia, executive director of the Lenovo Design Center in Beijing.

Lenovo's marketers are determined to squeeze every ounce of brand equity they can out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Lenovo, with headquarters in Beijing and Raleigh, N.C., is one of the Olympics' main corporate sponsors and has even sponsored a climbing team that will take the torch to the top of Mt. Everest next June as part of the official torch relay.

Determined to Win

Design will play a major role in the company's marketing blitz. Already, the boulevards in Beijing are lined with billboards and signs displaying the Olympic computer and advertising the Tianyi line. "Along with technology and innovation, nothing is more important to Lenovo than design. Our design strategy has always driven our success," says Alice Li, a Lenovo veteran who is vice-president for Olympic marketing.

The high-profile role of design in Lenovo's Olympic marketing campaign began more than two years ago. The Beijing Organizing Committee conducted a design contest for the Beijing Olympics logo, and Lenovo designers submitted a proposal. They didn't win, but when the committee launched yet another design contest, this time for the torch, Yao was determined to win the commission—which typically goes to a traditional design company.

To get the creative juices flowing, Yao conducted a brainstorming session on Nov. 25, 2005, at the Jiu Hua Hot Spring Resort outside Beijing. He pulled together about 80 Lenovo designers, electrical engineers, and mechanical engineers, divided them into four teams, and challenged them to come up with design ideas. He wanted the design to work for the runners who carried the torch. In other words, it had to be light and easy to hold and hand off. But he also wanted striking imagery that would wow the people who viewed it—and he wanted it to reflect both the Olympic tradition and Chinese culture. The scene at the hotel was chaotic at first. The team members—including designers from China, Germany, Singapore, and New Zealand—were talking over each other in Chinese and English. "It was like vendors shouting in a crowded market," Yao recalls.

A major breakthrough came when Angela Qiu, a design strategy director, urged the group to make the torch look like a scroll. She pointed out that the Chinese had invented paper, and she demonstrated her idea by rolling a large sheet of paper from both ends until it became a compact, torch-like shape that could easily be held in a runner's hand.

The Essence of China

The next issue was imagery. Some of the designers wanted to use a dragon, the Great Wall, or the phoenix—all common Chinese motifs. But Yao pressed for a design that would meld the Olympics with China.

They settled on clouds, a motif that captured both the essence of ancient Chinese design and the overlapping circles of the Olympic logo.

The brainstorming session proved to be the easy part. Over the ensuing months, a team of 10 Lenovo designers and engineers led by Yao worked out the details. The torch had to be light, so they used an aluminum magnesium alloy that they were familiar with from their experience in building laptops. They also used a rubberized paint common in portable computing to make the handle easy to grip. It was tricky to come up with a technique for machining the complicated curve shape of the metal. And it took a few tries to settle on the right technique for achieving a textured surface on the clouds. (In the end, they used a photo etching process.) They quickly settled on red as a primary color in the design, but it took weeks to find the right red. They finally chose a bold red that's very close to the color of the doors on Beijing's Forbidden City.

Their design, called "Cloud of Promise," was chosen by the Beijing Olympic Committee in April from more than 300 submissions. "Winning the design contest was important for Lenovo. It's about establishing your best-of-breed design on a world stage," says Lee Green, a branding expert and corporate brand executive at IBM (IBM), a company that has used design in products and marketing for more than two decades to reinforce its global brand.

"Emotional Appeal"

The idea for producing an Olympic-themed computer came in the middle of the torch design process. Lenovo marketers suggested it, and Yao and his team jumped at the chance. They used the same red color and the swirling cloud design on the top cover. Yao wanted to capture the feeling of Han Dynasty lacquered boxes, which have bold designs and colors on the outside and simpler designs inside.

There are no plans to sell the Olympic computer through normal sales channels, but it builds on a tradition at Lenovo for designing products with strong colors and imagery. Last year, for example, the company launched a notebook computer in China called the "Mountain PC." It featured a drawing of a snowcapped peak on the top cover and drawings of climbers inside. "We'll continue to try laptop designs with interesting cultural and emotional appeal," says Yao.

And while Lenovo has not yet designed products specifically for the U.S. and European consumers, it's expected to enter those markets late this year or early next year. When it does, Yao and his team will likely give the American PC giants some stiff competition in the looks department.

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