July 15, 2014, The Lodhi Hotel, Delhi.
“’twas a Summer’s evening in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii…”
– Marc Anthony, Julius Caesar
It certainly was a bright summer’s day when Xiaomi made its debut in India – well, media debut anyway, as it had been in the country for a few weeks. The event was scheduled around lunch. You could smell the sweat and the tension in the air. There are better smelling things, take my word for it. And while there were no Nervii (a Belgian tribe, for those who know not their Geography or Shakespeare) to be defeated, there certainly were nerves aplenty.
The venue chosen by the brand was an unusual one – the Lodhi Hotel is reasonably centrally located but is often confused with the similarly named restaurant, which was in the neighborhood, adding to the confusion. So as one reached the venue, one was treated to the sight of hassled public relations executives screaming into phones, “No, not THAT Lodi…” with varying levels of irritation as they tried to ensure that mediapersons got
to the venue on time (they did not, but then press conferences in India are notorious for starting almost 30-45 minutes late). The fact that many cab drivers sent to pick up mediapersons did not know where to ferry them – again, a disturbingly familiar trend in India – did not help matters. Meanwhile, in the corridors of the hotel, a pale, slim figure walked impatiently, looking at arrangements, and inevitably rearranging them.
“You know, he’s a lot thinner than I had thought,” one of my friends whispered as we passed him on the way to the room for the event.
Xiaomi’s global vice president, Hugo Barra, was not looking best pleased.
And things did not get better. The room chosen for the launch was the library, which clearly was not tailor-made for events – there were pillars in the room that blocked the view of many spectators, and the acoustics were not the greatest, and neither was the seating. There were murmurs about “the Chinese opting for the cheapest room” even as the mediapersons settled in.
No, not the greatest start.
The event itself was relatively low-key, although the geek elements in the crowd – mostly from the tech blog community – went berserk when Hugo Barra was introduced. After all, this was the man many called the Nexus man, the man who studied at MIT, worked at Nuance and then was a key member of Google’s Android and Nexus team before he suddenly opted to join a relatively unknown Chinese phone brand, which he was representing on this day. And when Barra introduced the device that Xiaomi was planning to release in India – the Mi 3 – one or two of the senior journalists in the crowd muttered that it had taken its time coming to Indian shores (it was originally released in China in 2013). By the time he was midway through the presentation, though, there was a perceptible change in atmosphere in the room.
In India, phone launches generally followed a set pattern – a senior executive introduced the product and then he (and sometimes a few others) walked the audience through different aspects of the product. The process was generally a tedious one, not least because the person (s) involved followed an adjective laden script and more often than not, read off slides on the large display.
Hugo Barra, however, was a very different kettle of fish.
The Xiaomi global vice-president was following a script as well – the presentation was too well-organised for spontaneity. But he was clearly not constrained by it. The man reveled in his role on stage and was as different from a person who had learned a script by rote as an eagle is from a parrot. What was crucial was that he seemed to know the product and did not come across as a marketing person mouthing terminology to compensate for technology – he had humor and oodles of charm, and he drew on them frequently. This was a master presenter – “The Lord of the Living Room” one of my friends called him, drawing parallels to Tom Cruise’s character in Jerry Macguire. The venue might not have been the greatest but within a few minutes, Barra was swaying the crowd, even though a few non-believers continued to frown.
Those frowns got erased by the announcement of the price of the device.
The company had officially declared that it would be released the Mi 3 at Rs 14,999, which was a staggering price for the specifications it was offering, which were comfortably comparable to the official Android flag bearer, the Nexus 5 in some regards (display, processor, RAM, storage) and comfortably superior in others (build, camera, battery) – the Nexus 5 officially cost twice as much, and was still considered the most affordable high-end Android. But those who had not known about the brand and the phone – and there were many in the mainstream media – were cynical about the product and its pricing, muttering that there were bound to have been some significant corners cut to get such a shockingly low price tag.
Barra spent most of the time on stage verbally and visually massaging the Mi 3 (you could almost hear his voice purring as he referred to the product), stressing its premium feel, finish, and performance – specs and benchmarks were compared with other devices that cost 2-3 times as much. The metal build of the device was accented, contrasting it against the plastic of other devices. The interface – Xiaomi’s own MIUI – was described in loving detail, with features like the ability to switch on the torch even from the lockscreen and the fact that the screen locked automatically when the phone was placed in your pocket, preventing accidental dials, being highlighted.
And then for good measure, he dropped the price further. The Mi 3 would be available in India for Rs 13,999, not Rs 14,999.
It was one of the rare times I have seen a room full of mediapersons explode in applause. The pokey library, the heat outside, the headache to reach the venue, were all forgiven. Asked how Xiaomi had managed such a low price, Barra explained that the company did no advertising (preferring to rely heavily on word of mouth and social media) and did not invest in traditional retail, sticking to the less expensive online model. The costs saved were passed on to the consumers. It was that simple. Other companies incurred massive overheads by going the conventional retail way – payments to wholesalers and retailers, print and electronic ad campaigns, marketing materials, celebrity endorsements, and a whole lot more. All Xiaomi did was sell the phones online, cutting costs heavily. And the consumer benefited.
In a few hours, the Web and social networks were abuzz with news of this astonishing priced, amazingly specced, brilliantly designed phone from a Chinese manufacturer. There were one or two critics who tried to raise the issue of why the company was releasing the Mi 3 so late in the country, when it was actually planning to release its successor (the Mi 4) in China – a sin for which even the mighty Apple had been hauled over the media coals in India – but they were few and far between. That price clearly forgave age and timing.
Xiaomi had landed. On a summer day in India.