Oneplus ringing the changes with its guerrilla marketing
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