Comeback kid? LG eyes break in U.S. with Optimus G Pro

When LG was developing its first phablet, known globally as the Optimus Vu but in the U.S. as the Intuition, the head of the mobile division, J.S. Park, supposedly obsessed over the slide-top mechanism that covered the charging port, sending back prototype after prototype to his designers.

One was too fast, one was too loose, and another was too slow, according to a story related by James Fishler, head of marketing for LG’s U.S. division, one he characterized as LG folklore. Park was convinced that the little detail was an important detail that consumers would focus on.

“While it may seem trivial, that same mindset goes into all of the devices that you see LG coming out with now,” Fishler said in an interview with CNET late Wednesday.

LG believes it’s that attention to detail that has the company pulling off what so many rival handset manufacturers are desperately scrambling to achieve: a legitimate comeback.

Last week, LG said it shipped 10.3 million smartphones in the first quarter, or double the amount from a year ago. That was good enough for the company to rank No. 3 among global smartphone vendors, with a market share that rose 50 percent from the same year-earlier period, according to IDC.

But LG continues to be ignored in the U.S., where even its flagship Optimus G came and went with little attention. It’s hoping to drum up a little buzz with its larger Optimus G Pro, which AT&T will sell as an exclusive on May 10 for $199.99 and a two-year contract.

The ninja-like rise from LG is surprising considering its relatively low-key presence in the industry. Where Samsung boasts a slick — and massive — marketing machine, Apple commands hoards of faithful fanboys, and even underdog HTC stands out with its design chops, LG really hasn’t had much of an identity to call its own. The company has a broad selection of smartphones, for sure, but none have really stood out.

Things have certainly changed over the last few months. LG started to make a bigger push behind its Optimus G flagship smartphone, which did do well globally.

But it was with its participation in Google’s Nexus program that LG started to turn some heads. The company’s Nexus 4 was the latest flagship smartphone from Google, and came with an equally attractive no-contract price of $299 at the Google Play store. The lure of the latest version of Android Jelly Bean and the low price meant the Nexus 4 was a hard item to find when it first debuted.

Still there remains a question as to whether LG can repeat its success in the U.S., where Apple and Samsung are entrenched and benefit from deeper pockets.

“More needs to be done around differentiation,” said Ross Rubin, an analyst at Reticule Research.

Strength in Europe, Asia 
Even as LG faces challenges in the U.S., it is making progress in Europe and Asia Pacific.

That’s because it had — seemingly for the first time — a smartphone worth bragging about. The Optimus G, with a unique design, a speedy Qualcomm quad-core processor, and a few unique bells and whistles, sold well in select markets.

The Optimus G is a far cry from its early forays into the smartphones, particularly its early attempts at crafting the Optimus brand. Those phones were more budget-friendly devices that were stacked against some of the innovative products coming out of Apple and HTC.

“Historically, the first Optimus phone didn’t exactly ignite the market,” said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC. “The Optimus G is a strong positive step.”

The Nexus 4 was another boon to LG. The smartphone, which featured Android 4.2.2, also known as Jelly Bean, was the latest flagship phone by Google, and was a hot seller late last year.