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Chinese smartphone upstart that beat Apple is now venturing West

[BEIJING] Vivo, the fast-growing smartphone brand backed by reclusive Chinese billionaire Duan Yongping, will begin selling to Western markets for the first time as it accelerates a global expansion.

Emboldened by its success against Apple Inc and Samsung Electronics Co at home, the company now intends to tackle developed markets with higher-end devices. 

In coming months, China's third-largest smartphone brand will market its gadgets, which include the flagship V7+, in Russia, Taiwan and Singapore. The company launched the X20 in Hong Kong on Friday and Africa is on the cards for early next year, it said.

Vivo is emblematic of a new crop of Chinese firms that've squeezed out foreign labels at home and have aggressively explored markets abroad. Vivo, which kicked off an overseas expansion via Thailand in 2014, built a domestic customer base by enlisting tens of thousands of retailers in rural areas and poorer cities where the competition was scarcer, a tactic that helped Vivo and counterpart Oppo - another of Mr Duan's startups - dethrone Apple in shipments.

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Vivo was founded in 2009 and, along with Oppo, came out of nowhere to squeeze out then-leader Xiaomi Corp in the rankings. They eschewed e-commerce to instead court the physical stores where an estimated three-quarters of smartphone sales still take place, and packed high-end components into handsets that sold at a fraction of Apple's. 

Vivo itself is known for its fast-charging devices with outsized batteries and memory. Today, the company is ranked just below Oppo in Chinese sales and is an official sponsor of both the 2018 FIFA World Cup and India's cricket league.

Entering Russia means facing off against Samsung and Apple, which together controlled close to half of the country's market share in the second quarter, according to Counterpoint Research. A number of Chinese brands have already made inroads before Vivo, including Xiaomi and Huawei Technologies Co, China's No 1 mobile name.

China's big four smartphone makers - Huawei, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi - employ different strategies to infiltrate foreign markets.

Huawei, which arguably makes the priciest and most advanced devices, is focused on consolidating its position in developed markets such as Germany and Spain, where it's made early inroads by selling networking gear. The rest have so far engaged in battle mostly in major emerging markets such as India and Indonesia, using affordable phones.

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