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The Slow and Methodical Rise of Hisense TVs: A 50-Year Journey to Market Dominance

The Slow and Methodical Rise of Hisense TVs


Recently, I wrote about the legendary rise of TCL. TCL didn’t even enter the North American TV market till 2013, but within just 10 years, they have grown to be the 2nd largest player in the market, even overtaking LG. TCL isn’t the only Chinese brand that has had a tremendous run over the past decade though.

Another Chinese brand that’s been killing it is Hisense. In fact, for much of 2023, Hisense was even ahead of TCL and ranked as the 2nd largest TV maker for 3 straight quarters, and Hisense didn’t even enter the US TV market till late 2015.

But, Hisense has had a far different journey to the top. While they did blow up rather quickly within Western markets just like TCL, they’ve been slowly grinding their way up in the TV market for over 50 years now.

And while they do control roughly the same amount of market share as TCL, the brand sentiment surrounding each brand is far different. TCL has started to form a sort of fan club by partnering with an array of top YouTubers and influencers like Linus Tech Tips and iJustine. Digital Trends even named TCL a fan favorite for CES 2024.

Hisense, however, doesn’t have that sort of reputation or hype. Much of their popularity can simply be explained by their ability to produce highly economical TVs. You can buy a 55-inch Hisense for just $278, a 65-inch Hisense for just $400, a 75-inch Hisense for just $500, and even an 85-inch Hisense for less than $1,000.

But while the brands have had far different ways of rising to the top, it seems clear that TCL and Hisense are by far the most likely candidates to finally dethrone Samsung as the world’s largest TV maker, a title they’ve held for nearly 20 years.

So, here’s the slow and methodical rise of Hisense – the antithesis to TCL.

Forced To Make TVs

But anyway, taking a look back, the story of Hisense takes us back to September of 1969 to Qingdao, China. This was right after the Chinese cultural revolution started to cool down and a new government was starting to take shape: the modern CCP.

Most of the people who were already in power were let go, and a new group of leaders were chosen by Revolutionary Committees. And this shuffling in power led to a new era of Chinese electronics. Party leaders wanted the country to become a leader in global electronics, and as such, they very much pushed for the creation of a slew of consumer electronics companies.

A Hisense U7K TV

One of the companies that rose from these ashes was of course Hisense, but they weren’t called Hisense at the time and they weren’t producing TVs. Rather, they actually went by the name Red Lantern, and the company wasn’t really even a company. It was just a small factory that specialized in making radios.

They didn’t have any ambitions to enter the TV market either, it was actually something that was forced onto them by the government or more specifically, the Shandong National Defense Office.

The Office would arrange for three Red Lantern employees to be trained at a nearby factory where they would learn the ins and outs of producing black and white televisions. Using this training, Red Lantern would produce their first batch of 82 televisions in 1971.

For perspective, TCL wasn’t even founded till 1981 and they didn’t get involved with TV production till the late 2000s. So, Red Lantern definitely had a massive head start, but it was by no means a fast process. In fact, it took several years to actually bring their TVs to market, and once again, this wasn’t really by choice.

For most of the 1970s, Red Lantern was tasked with research and development as well as experimentation. For example, by 1975, they figured out how to produce transistor TVs, and by 1978, they would produce their first broad market model: the CJD18. Unfortunately, there aren’t any images of this TV available online, but it probably looked something like this.

What really made Red Lantern TVs popular though was yet another government order. In 1979, the Ministry of Electronics in Beijing decided that it was time to double down on their electronics push and that combining efforts would be the most beneficial. So, they ordered that Red Lantern be merged with several local electronics makers leading to the creation of Qingdao General Television Factory.

This was much more of a full-on company than the single factory that Red Lantern started with but government officials weren’t exactly pleased with the rate of progress at Red Lantern. It had been nearly a decade since they tasked the company with developing TVs, but they had yet to even figure out how to produce color TVs.

This strategy of internal R&D was clearly not going great, so Qingdao began looking for outside help to further their TV knowledge. Aka, they would start ripping off successful TV brands. Something that should be noted though is that they did this with class.

They didn’t just buy a Panasonic TV and reverse engineer it. Instead, they went to Panasonic’s founder, Konosuke Matsushita, and bought a color TV production line from him so that they could learn. They would go on to do the same thing with Hitachi, Lucent, NEC, Sanyo, Toshiba, and Qualcomm.

This finally gave them the technological push they needed to produce modern TVs, and they would emerge into the 1990s as a rapidly growing TV giant within China. In line with this new status within the market, Qingdao changed their name to Hisense in 1994, leading us into a new era for the company.

Created In China

Most Asian brands start off making a bunch of random electronics and appliances to become known for one hero product over time. Panasonic, for example, started off making bicycle lights, but they eventually became known for making TVs, microwaves, and landline phones.

Similarly, LG actually started off as a cosmetics maker, yet they’re now known for making home appliances and beautiful OLED TVs. Hisense, however, followed the exact opposite path. They started off making TVs and then they started making everything else, but they’re still just known for making TVs.

The 1990s was the era in which Hisense started making everything else. This included air conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, ovens, and cell phones. They also started to export all of these products beginning in 1991. If you were around during this time, though, you probably never actually heard the name Hisense because they largely operated as an OEM, meaning that they made parts for brands that you’re actually familiar with.

The brands that they worked with are mostly unknown largely because no one really cared about a random Chinese OEM manufacturer back in the 90s in 2000s, so it wasn’t really all that well documented. We do know that TCL was one of Samsung’s LCD suppliers, so Hisense likely had similar partnerships with such brands behind the scenes.

Hisense didn’t want to be a background player forever, though, and so over time, they did slowly step into the spotlight. For example, in 1997, they went public on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. And in 2002, they formed a public air conditioning partnership with Hitachi that gave them a lot more exposure.

But what really started shaping the Hisense brand was, of course, TVs. Hisense’s first breakthrough came in 2005 when they created China’s first industrial digital video processing chip, meaning that China could officially stop relying on foreign chips.

Funnily enough, it took Hisense 35 years after entering the TV market to make this breakthrough, but now that they had finally started forging their own road, things were about to move fast. Just 2 years later in 2007, Hisense would start China’s first color TV LCD module production line.

And a couple of years later in 2010, Hisense’s Chairman would deliver an invigorating speech at the CES Summit Forum about how Hisense was gonna change things from made in China to created in China. While that was quite a bold speech, though, Hisense still had a long way to go to become any sort of market leader.

The reality was that while Hisense was finally making organic internal progress, they were still far behind the market leaders who were well past LCD and even LED. The leaders were very much busy with OLED while Hisense was still messing with LCD.

Historically, this is when Hisense would’ve turned to buying out an LED or OLED production line from one of the leaders, but this time, Hisense decided to stay true to “created in China” and they took a completely different approach. They decided to skip OLED altogether and create their own digital standard called ULED which they launched in 2014.

Hisense likes to claim that they created a display that’s better than OLED, which is simply not true. But what they did create was something that was way better than regular LED displays and only a fraction of the cost of OLED.

Naturally, this turned out to be a pretty popular option amongst everyday consumers, and Hisense was yet to even enter the US TV market. Being such a big player, though, already, Hisense was about to annihilate Western markets.

Global Domination

Hisense entered Western markets with a completely different strategy than TCL. One of TCL’s core strategies was thriving as the no-name brand. They felt that this was actually their biggest advantage. While they didn’t have a brand image or reputation working in their favor, they also didn’t have any brand baggage working against them.

This meant that the products and prices could do all the talking, and judging by where TCL is today, I’d say that worked out pretty well. Hisense, on the other hand, decided to take the exact opposite strategy by buying out a brand with a bunch of baggage: Sharp.

Back in the 90s and 2000s, Sharp was a leading TV brand, but with the rise of Samsung and LG and new TV standards, Sharp was largely left in the dust. In fact, they were pretty much ready to abandon the American TV market and that’s exactly where Hisense stepped in.

In 2015, they agreed to pay Sharp $23.7 million for the branding rights for the Sharp brand for the next 5 years, and this is how Hisense entered the American market. This was a rather clever strategy as it allowed them to learn about the American TV market and iron out any issues without hurting their own brand, and let’s just say, they had some serious issues.

In fact, Sharp’s parent company, Foxconn, would actually sue Hisense for making crappy TVs and tarnishing the Sharp brand. Hisense would of course deny these allegations, but you can take that for what you will.

Sharp wasn’t the only brand that Hisense experimented with either. In 2017, Hisense would buy out 95% of Toshiba’s TV business for a mere $83 million. This gave Hisense access to Toshiba’s production plants, R&D, marketing department, and brand for 40 years.

Using all the knowledge they could get from Toshiba and Sharp, Hisense would make an all-out push for the US TV market with the Hisense brand. This was by no means a perfect push, but it was an extremely powerful push. While we did start seeing quality control complaints pop up, quality control has only gotten better and better, and in the meantime, Hisense’s economical TVs were gobbling up market share.

Hisense simply threw this trend into overdrive by forming a few critical marketing partnerships. For example, Hisense became an official sponsor of the 2018 World Cup and the 2022 World Cup. In 2020, they also became a major sponsor of the NRL or the National Rugby League.

And most recently, in 2023, Hisense became the official TV sponsor of the NBA. Despite all these partnerships and market share, though, the one thing that Hisense still seems to be lacking is a strong community. TCL was also lacking this for the longest time, but it seems that their recent push into 100+ inch TVs has garnered them a new community of TV enthusiasts.

Hisense, however, is still for the most part just an economical brand and nothing more. Who knows though, Hisense has survived in the TV market for over 50 years, so maybe they have one more evolution up their sleeve to overtake TCL. But, even if they don’t, I suspect that Hisense will be a really strong number 2, and that is the slow and methodical rise of Hisense.

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