Apple might be the defining smartphone company in the West, but there’s a crop of Asian brands that have outsmarted the California giant outside the US and Europe.
Few Westerners will have heard of the Chinese smartphone maker Oppo, but it’s one of the most recognisable brands in Asia, and bigger than Apple in both India and China.
It’s the fifth-largest smartphone maker in the world, despite having almost no presence in the US or Europe, accounting for around 8% of all global phone sales. Other than Apple, only Samsung, Huawei, and Xiaomi are bigger worldwide.
Take a look at this chart, showing Oppo is the fifth-biggest smartphone maker:
Not only has Oppo conquered its home market, being the second-biggest phone maker in China behind Huawei, but it’s also cracked the top five brands in India. Apple has barely made a dent in India, thanks to the fact even its cheapest phones cost double the price of alternatives.
Oppo’s success is down to a combination of marketing might, tech innovation, and clever pricing.
And now it’s getting serious about Western markets. The company has invited journalists to a launch event on 29 January, and is holding a second event in February at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
What makes this especially interesting is that Oppo isn’t a bit-part player, but part of a family of brands that includes two other emerging smartphone giants — Vivo and OnePlus.
“Oppo are a very interesting company because it’s one of the five players in the Chinese market, and owned by a holding company called BBK Electronics,” analyst Ben Wood told Business Insider. “BBK owns Vivo and OnePlus.”
If you combined the Oppo, Vivo, and OnePlus brands, BBK is arguably the third-biggest smartphone maker in the world. BBK likes to bill its three brands as operating separately, and Wood says it’s never been clear if the three brands have ever teamed up on, for example, components, “which would make sense.”
What might make Oppo appealing to Western consumers is its ability to innovate. Smartphone design hasn’t radically changed since the first iPhone came out in 2007, and the smartphone most people use day-to-day will still be a rectangular block featuring a large touchscreen and a good camera.
“They have shown repeatedly they have a great ability to innovate in different directions, especially at the higher end,” said Wood, pointing to the Oppo Find X.
The Find X is Oppo’s copycat of the iPhone X, though it isn’t available in the US. Its most interesting feature is its take on the camera notch, Apple’s getaround for housing the camera on a full-screen display. Oppo avoided putting notch on its full-screen device by housing the camera in a section that pops out of the back of the phone. “That certainly captured the imagination of users,” Wood said.
Other innovations include a periscope-style 10x zoom camera.
“They are a company that is prepared to embark on innovation in a market where we’re stuck with the homogenous form factor, and design,” Wood added. “They’re ones to watch in terms of future design direction, and they do seem to be capable of nice, high-quality products.”
For all that BBK’s brands are doing well in China and India, Asian brands are all suffering from the wider smartphone slowdown in China. Apple made headlines after warning of a dip in iPhone demand, but its rivals need to work hard to expand outside their own markets too.
Wood predicted that Oppo will launch a new flagship or major new tech at MWC in February, and possibly launch a mid-range phone or announce a partnership in the UK this week.
“It’s yet another company competing in the insanely competitive UK market at a time we’re seeing a slowdown,” he said. “Big players like Samsung, Apple, and Huawei are all investing disproportionate amounts of money into marketing and channel support in the UK. It’s hard to see how Oppo is going to be able to move the needle unless they spend ridiculous levels of money.”
It will also be difficult for Oppo to replicate its position as a high-end smartphone maker against the iPhone or Samsung’s Galaxy S9. Instead, the firm will probably compete more closely with Huawei, Wood suggested, with mid-tier phones.
And happily for Oppo, Huawei has done a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to introducing an unknown Chinese brand to the West.
“All these new challenger brands, Xiaomi, or Oppo, or Vivo, even OnePlus, companies coming with names that aren’t immediately a Western name, more a Chinese name — historically the UK market has been very brand conservative and reluctant to take a risk on products,” said Wood.
Huawei changed all that thanks to multiple, expensive marketing campaigns about how to say its name correctly and pushing its devices.
“The money Huawei has spent [means] people have consideration for Huawei,” Wood said. “Huawei products are giving a certain section of UK consumers confidence to try something where they don’t know the brand initially. The people who buy Huawei are pleased, so there’s word-of-mouth acceptance that you don’t need to gravitate to the most recognised brands.”
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