Lenovo revamps image, loses the Chinese

September 13, 2012, 2:04 PM UTC

FORTUNE — How does a Chinese company make itself cool to locals? For Lenovo, the answer is to appear less Chinese.

Later this fall it is unleashing a campaign that imports the same English slogan — “Lenovo: For those who do” – from a similar global campaign it rolled out to regions like North America last year. That multi-channel effort, a combination of action-heavy TV, Web, and print advertising, was designed largely by the New York-based ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi and cost an estimated $100 million.

While Lenovo’s Chinese marketing campaign is still in the early planning stages, CMO David Roman tells Fortune to expect a campaign in the same adrenaline-pumping vein. But these new ads will be designed by a Chinese agency instead.

Lenovo wants to revamp its tired image, which CMO David Roman admits is somewhat avuncular. It may be the largest PC maker in China, but it is a brand he admits remains tied to a successful, if aging, device category. “In order to be successful in smartphones and tablets, we also have to make Lenovo cooler and hipper in these spaces,” Roman admits.

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He may have a point. Late last year, when Gartner Research held a focus group among high-income individuals in Beijing between the ages of 18 and 55, the overwhelming consensus was that international brands were more appealing than domestic ones. “I don’t want this domestic brand. I want Apple,” Mikako Kitagawa, a Gartner Research analyst, recalls participants saying. Although Lenovo has a strong reputation and is widely respected in China, stronger global brands like Apple (AAPL) and BMW are viewed as status symbols there.

Part of owning a successful global brand often involves having one voice with which you speak to the customer, says Sarah Rotman Epps, a Forrester Research analyst. The fine print on marketing materials will often be in that country’s native language, but the brand and product name remains in English. Case in point: Sony (SNE) and its PlayStation 3 video game console or Samsung and its smartphone ecosystem. In that respect, Lenovo is playing catch-up.

Whether the company’s new marketing efforts pay off in its native country remains to be seen. Analysts Fortune spoke to agree that casting a company in a different light is much harder to do in a market like China where it already has a strong brand perception as opposed to the U.S., where it’s much lesser known. Being a Chinese company aiming for widespread global recognition represents an even bigger challenge, although it’s certainly one the company recognizes. Says Roman: “We hope Lenovo will be the first of a number of brands to emerge.”

A shorter version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2012 issue of Fortune.