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Opinion: To niche or not to niche?

With the massive marketing and PR campaign for the launch of the OnePlus 5, the company seems to have decided on a particular direction. Will it work out for them?

Like pretty much everyone else in the tech community, I watched the India launch of the OnePlus 5 with a lot of anticipation interest. All the leaks made sure that only a few details were truly unknown, so there was no anticipation, but I was certainly interested – more for the event than the phone itself.

OnePlus 5

Leading up to the launch, I saw a peculiar shift in the way OnePlus has been promoting their phone. For some time now, (since the Emily Ratajkowski Dash Charging days actually), the brand seems to have been teetering on the edge of deciding whether it wants to retain its erstwhile enthusiast-focussed underdog image or shed it completely and take the mainstream plunge. If the star-studded TV commercials featuring heavyweights like Amitabh Bachchan are to go by, OnePlus seems to have finally made the choice. The massive PR campaign they ran finally culminated in a cringe-fest of a launch event at one of the biggest venues in Mumbai and the event even managed to pull a few purely commercial stunts like an on-stage on the spot quiz competition with a ₹1 crore cash prize! Whether or not Amazon lent a hand in this massive publicity campaign, or whether OnePlus did it all on its own is immaterial, the message it sends is more important.

OnePlus 5
Courtesy: OnePlus India launch YouTube

Until now, OnePlus had the image of a scrappy upstart with great ideas, an intimate two-way relationship with the geek community, a marketing strategy that relied heavily on word of mouth and a focus on providing great devices whose pricing seemed “fair” if nothing else.
Despite my dislike for the publicity stunts, the phone that OnePlus launched isn’t bad at all. It does lack “flagship” features such as waterproofing, and looks suspiciously like the iPhone 7 (or Oppo R11 from its parent company), but hey at least it’s got the latest and greatest SoC out there. And while it will be the most affordable 835-based phone we’re likely to see this year, at ₹33k it falls outside of what I like to call the “no brainer” zone – a zone some of their previous phones owned! The OP5 is straddling the line between absolute value for money, and the exorbitant flagship pricing you have to shell out for the bells and whistles loaded flagships from established brands. Going by early sales numbers, the positioning is working, but will it continue to?

OnePlus 5

The next major phone they launch (One Plus 6 presumably?) will be expected to take on “mainstream” flagship phones. The alienation of the geeks is already underway for a few. Some take the changes of the brand to be akin to the bik gayi hai gormint sentiment, but some may look at it positively like the way they accept a change of their favourite band or artist’s music style. Success depends on which of these groups is larger.

Another thing I’m wondering about is whether a brand can ever truly retain its enthusiast tag or title throughout its life cycle? Probably not. Do companies drop us enthusiasts, geeks, and early adopters somewhere along the road because we are a difficult lot to please, or is it just because there aren’t enough of us to matter?

OnePlus 5
Courtesy: OnePlus India launch YouTube

Brands that start out targeting enthusiasts seem to have only two options – attempt to go mainstream and fight the big guys, or hope that one of the big guys buys you out eventually. Pebble, Nextbit and many others seem to have gone down the latter path.

Coming back to OnePlus, I think the company was in a rather unique position, especially in India. Here the price-sensitivity of the average buyer is legendary. Furthermore, I posit that the tech awareness of the average buyer is also increasing, especially when it comes to understanding smartphone specifications. Combining these factors, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that India has a large enough base of geeky, price-sensitive people to keep enthusiast brands afloat and maybe even make them thrive in the long run.

OnePlus 5

With OnePlus vacating this position, perhaps geeks will soon find themselves hungering for a replacement, and I wonder who that replacement will be. One of the existing smaller brands, or a completely new startup? My guess is, the Next Big Thing (trademark) will come from nowhere, and will be unexpected, but like always it will start with us geeks.

This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Siddharth Parwatay

Siddharth Parwatay

Vertically challenged geek. Interested in things like evolution, psychology, pc gaming, history, web culture... amongst other things.