Jan 8, 2020 - World

Consumer tech giant TCL isn't hiding its Chinese ties

photo of TCL booth at CES

Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

For years, China's TCL sold tons of TVs and phones in the U.S. under other brand labels, like Alcatel and RCA. These days, though, it's looking to make its own moniker into a household name here.

Why it matters: TCL's move comes amid threats from Washington to push at least some Chinese tech out of the U.S. market. And it marks a bit of global brand unity that contrasts with efforts companies like TikTok have made to distance themselves from their China connections.

Driving the news:

  • In addition to the licensed gear, TCL already sells TVs in the U.S. under its own name, playing up the built-in Roku that comes in its sets to put customers at ease with an unfamiliar name. It's now the No. 2 player in the U.S. market by units sold.
  • But this week at CES, the company unveiled TCL-branded phones aimed at the U.S. market, hoping to benefit from the name recognition it's managed to build with its TVs. TCL until now used the Alcatel or BlackBerry brands in the U.S.

What they're saying: TCL marketing executive Stefan Streit said he isn't worried that a strained U.S.-China relationship will hurt the company the way that it has companies like Huawei and ZTE.

  • "Not at all," he said. "We are just doing consumer products. We are not doing networks or infrastructure or chipsets."
  • Tariffs, of course, are another matter, he said. But those affect everyone making products in China.

Yes, but: TCL will still sell devices under the BlackBerry brand it licenses from that company. (Blackberry no longer makes hardware of its own.) TCL will also keep selling lower-end Alcatel devices through carriers.

  • The high-end phones will definitely be sold direct to consumers, but it's not clear if they will also be available through carriers — which remains a key way many Americans buy their phones.

Between the lines: TCL's branding move for its premium phones makes sense, since consumers think of Alcatel as a budget device, analyst Carolina Milanesi of Creative Strategies said. TCL phones will naturally feel to buyers like TCL TVs — "a smart buy, not a compromise buy," as she put it.

What's next: TCL will also look to bring its appliances, like air conditioners, to the U.S. market.

  • At CES, TCL also showed off a concept foldable phone and a prototype head-mounted display.

Go deeper: TikTok looks to downplay its China ties

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