In April 2014, when a Chinese startup (some would prefer to have called it an “upstart” given its penchant for clever social media messaging) came out with a phone that it tagged “flagship killer,” many laughed at the notion. Not too many could have predicted that the OEM would disrupt the industry and the market in a matter of months, with its core agenda of providing the best Android experience at a relatively affordable price.

We are talking of OnePlus. Its first-ever offering, simply named OnePlus One, was powerful and innovatively designed and yet affordable. And it provided a glimpse into its core strategy: offer a product that is so irresistible in sheer terms of value for money that “traditional” marketing becomes almost superfluous. And it seemed to work – without placing huge billboards or advertisements in conventional media, the brand sold over a million units of the OnePlus One within a year.

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More than two years down the line, OnePlus is currently on its third generation flagship and after being criticized heavily for the second one, bounced back superbly with the third. In this period, a bunch of things have changed, most notably, the smartphone market itself. Most notably, many more players are now cloning the OnePlus formula of “affordable handsets with top-of-the-line specifications.” The core selling proposition of the OnePlus One is no longer unique. Which is why perhaps the company is looking to tweak its strategy.

No cutting corners on quality

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One notable thing about OnePlus, in my opinion, is that the company does not want to compromise on quality. If you have been paying close attention, you might have noticed that with each iteration, OnePlus is marginally stepping up its flagship prices – OnePlus One retailed at $299, OnePlus 2’s launch price was $329 and now, the OnePlus 3 is selling for $399. It is also worth mentioning that a couple of rumors indicate that the next flagship from the company, the upcoming OnePlus 3T smartphone will be priced even higher – somewhere around $480. So, it would seem that after making its presence felt in the affordable smartphone segment, OnePlus is now looking at a more premium segment. And it is hardly alone in that ambition: Xiaomi, Coolpad, Huawei, and many others are doing the same, although they are facing considerable challenges too.

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OnePlus, to its credit, while being affordable has never been seen as “ultra cheap” unlike some of its rivals. The latest OnePlus 3 is considered the best handset of 2016 among many and that’s not just because of the price, it’s due to the overall feature to price ratio. The OnePlus One I bought back in early 2015 still functions like a charm and is among the few phones to receive developers’ support consistently. Yes, there were wobbles with the OnePlus 2 and the rather odd OnePlus X, but the general perception about OnePlus is of a brand that fights not just on price, but also quality – something that is borne out by their design and consistent software support and updates. The same cannot be said about all its competitors.

OnePlus also isn’t going all out and launching a ton of budget phones to see what clicks. The company has officially stated that it will be ditching the X series to focus completely on a single flagship series. This allows it to streamline and closely control the experience without branching it out into a ton of devices and running the risk of compromising on quality, not to mention the higher complexity that comes with spares and technical support.

Therefore, if you do want a cheaper OnePlus handset, you will have to settle for the previous generations which in itself, is another major aspect of this company’s strategy. OnePlus doesn’t give up on its old phones in months because they keep selling even after a year of the launch date. Unlike most OEMs who hardly release any major updates after a year, phones from OnePlus get updated and the best part is, third-party ROM compatibility is quite commendable. Even though customers face some significant delays, OnePlus, as promised, does roll out updates eventually. Hardware will expire sooner or later, however, if your software isn’t outdated, the phone will live a much longer and healthier life.

Goodbye Invite System

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Significantly, the company is also taking care to ensure that its products are more easily available to its consumers, It eliminated the most frustrating aspect of its service which “was” the invite system with the OnePlus 3, allowing customers to make a purchase without having to battle for “invites” in online contests.

Becoming a Lifestyle Brand

OnePlus’ co-founder, Carl Pei has been a Steve Jobs admirer. And it shows in OnePlus’ approach. Rather than pushing its products on the value for money card, OnePlus, like Apple, is going for building a lifestyle brand. A big part of that also reflects in the accessories it sells and the core features it focuses on. Offering smartphone back panels in materials such as the sandstone, kevlar, bamboo gives them a fashion angle. The company has also been partnering with brands like Uber and Ola. Setting up experience zones and pop-up stores allows it to advertise these relationships without having to establish offline retail stores which will obviously, result in higher costs and limited reach.

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Unlike most other Chinese companies who struggle to get going in the US or Europe, OnePlus smartly addressed these challenging markets from Day One, with its own online store and relying on their forums for marketing. It partnered with a biggie like Amazon to address another challenging market, India. In fact, OnePlus has managed to be present in three of the biggest smartphone markets in the world – the US, China and India.

More importantly, OnePlus has managed to maintain its “wow factor” year after year. Its products have steadily evolved, be it the design which is now all metal, or its own Oxygen OS, or the camera that can go toe-to-toe with the best out there. OnePlus is also researching various ways in which to address challenges that other manufacturers face: witness the Dash charging solution that charges your phone fast without making it seem like something out of Dante’s Inferno! We have a separate article in this regard, if you would like to read it.

All of which leads us to believe that the OnePlus 3 could well have been the phone that will pave the company’s way into the premium segment of the market. Every smartphone, whether budget or high-end, goes through a standard OnePlus 3 comparison now, an honor which is the preserve of the likes of the iPhone. Yes, it does have issues to address like after-sales support, but OnePlus has in a short period become a brand that people not only purchase, but also happily flaunt. All of which, we suspect, is paving its path for an entry into the uppermost tier of the smartphone market. We suspect Apple, Samsung, and Google will be watching with a wary eye.

And given OnePlus’ record, who could blame them?


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Shubham is based out of Ahmedabad, India and is studying to be a Computer Engineer, while specializing in mobile applications. He loves covering what's new in the smartphone space and aims to make it his primary profession some day.