Oneplus ring­ing the changes with its guer­rilla mar­ket­ing

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Technology Intelligence - By Matthew Field

Few brands at­tract a cult-like army of fans who will gladly smash their own smart­phones. In re­cent years, a mo­not­o­nous cy­cle of re­leases has led to big names slid­ing into medi­ocrity – or worse. But an ob­ses­sive fan base is some­thing Oneplus can be proud of. As in­dus­try gi­ants like Ap­ple and Sam­sung strug­gle to main­tain growth, the Chi­nese smart­phone maker has been win­ning plau­dits in the UK and US, par­tic­u­larly among a younger and more tech-ob­sessed crowd.

Founded in 2013, Oneplus now has $1.4bn (£1bn) in rev­enues. Hav­ing grown from an ini­tial pro­duc­tion run of 50,000 phones, it re­cently passed the one-mil­lion sales mark for its lat­est model. Few Brits will have seen many Oneplus ad­verts or posters. It has spread through word of mouth, lim­it­ing sales to ex­clu­sive in­vi­ta­tions.

This guer­rilla mar­ket­ing has won cus­tomers from older, tired phone

‘If you ask what we want to be in five years, I would just say to still be around’

brands. As es­tab­lished play­ers have strug­gled to re­tain their al­lure it is a strat­egy that has served Oneplus well, and with the launch of the iphone XS this week, the com­pany hopes to show it still has an edge, hav­ing poked fun at Ap­ple’s in­no­va­tions in the past. While its phones fea­ture pre­mium specs, they re­tail at half the price of Ap­ple’s £1,000 flag­ship.

“It might be right for Ap­ple,” says Oneplus co-founder Carl Pei. “We have a very ra­tio­nal way of do­ing things.” A co-founder at just 23, Pei, a univer­sity dropout, now helps lead one of the world’s youngest smart­phone com­pa­nies.

Now 28, Pei’s fam­ily moved from China to the US when he was four, be­fore mov­ing to Swe­den aged six.

Pei has just re­turned from Ber­lin’s IFA con­fer­ence, Europe’s big­gest tech meet. But the event was a slow-burner. “There was so much noise that even if you wanted to try some­thing it would be drowned out,” Pei says. Oneplus held a se­lect IFA party away from the crowds. De­spite his com­pany’s hip rep­u­ta­tion, and Pei’s love of techno, he failed to gain en­try to one of Ber­lin’s su­per­club Berghain.

Pei quit univer­sity in 2011 to work in the smart­phone sec­tor be­fore mov­ing to China to work with emerg­ing Chi­nese phone gi­ant Oppo. “I had a lot of un­ortho­dox thoughts as a kid,” Pei says: “I got to think­ing about China and In­dia. There are bil­lions of peo­ple and the only way for them to change their lives is to study hard. I had to do more than be a good stu­dent.”

Pei be­gan work­ing at Oppo un­der Pete Lau, now boss of Oneplus. Lau leads the com­pany, with Pei pro­vid­ing the deal-mak­ing and global launches.

But like any young start-up there have been con­tro­ver­sies. In 2014, Oneplus ran a cam­paign called “Smash the Past”. The first 100 fans who vol­un­tar­ily smashed their old smart­phone would re­ceive a new Oneplus for just $1. Un­for­tu­nately, many peo­ple tried to smash their phones be­fore the pro­mo­tion start date. There are also claims that the de­signs of Oppo and Oneplus are sus­pi­ciously sim­i­lar. Oneplus’s ma­jor share­holder is BBK, a largely un­known Chi­nese smart­phone gi­ant that also owns share­hold­ings in Oppo and Vivo. Oneplus says it is to­tally in­de­pen­dent. “Oneplus is about as in­de­pen­dent as Gif­f­gaff [owned by Tele­fon­ica] is,” says one mo­bile an­a­lyst.

Pei has used his Europe trip to lay the ground­work for a se­ries of deals with net­work providers ahead of what will be its next smart­phone launch in 2019. De­spite an at­tempt to por­tray it­self as a must-have brand, Pei says its am­bi­tions are not grandiose. “To cre­ate a healthy and en­dur­ing com­pany, that is our goal,” he says.

“In Sil­i­con Val­ley, all the mis­sion state­ments are very grand,” he says, “but what does it mean to be healthy? To make prof­its when your com­pe­ti­tion is los­ing. And what does it mean to be en­dur­ing? Com­pa­nies that have been around 50 or 100 years change the world in their own way. If you ask what we want to be in five years, I would just say to still be around. To have sur­vived.”

Carl Pei, 28, is co-founder at Chi­nese smart­phone maker Oneplus

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