“It’s unfair. It’s difficult. And honestly, we don’t know exactly what we can do about it…”
Xiaomi’s vice president Hugo Barra, put down his cup of coffee to ponder the question I had asked him: why did some people treat the word “Chinese” as something negative rather than as a reflection of the nationality of a company? It is interesting that many feel that Barra himself was hired by Xiaomi to make the brand feel “less Chinese.” He laughs at the idea but the perception of Chinese brands by a large chunk of the media is no laughing matter.
For a disturbingly large number of people – and many of them are in the media or run blogs and the like – the word “Chinese” is synonymous with “cheap copies with poor quality.” Many times readers who write in for recommendations on which device to purchase, put in a qualification: “No Chinese brands please.” Others brush aside our suggestions for Chinese brands with a “their service is bad, their quality is bad.” Interestingly, these concerns more often than not do not stem from personal experience, but are rooted in hearsay of the “someone had told me” kind.
“When something goes wrong with an iPhone, and things do go wrong with it (just check their forums), no one says it is because it is an American brand. Something goes wrong or is even rumoured to be wrong with a Huawei phone, it is straightaway – ‘oh it is a typical Chinese phone’,” Huawei India’s P Sanjeev had told me last year when talking about the bending rumours that had surrounded the Nexus 6P, which had been manufactured by Huawei. One company even has an ad campaign highlighting the fact that its phones are made in the US rather than in China, implying that this makes them better in some way.
The reason for this distrust of most things Chinese in tech goes back to the 2005-2010 period when a number of Chinese devices had flooded markets all over the world, boasting very good specs but rather clunky design and abysmal performance. They were mostly found in gray market and came at shockingly low prices but with no official warranty, but were a big hit among those who wanted phones with large display and high megapixel count cameras (those were the two parameters that counted in those days – processor and RAM were not on the horizon) at low prices. Things ultimately got so chaotic that their sales were banned in some countries and many service providers’ SIM cards would not work with them. Ultimately they faded out from the market, swept away by Government regulations and increasingly affordable Android devices from better known brands.
But they left behind a terrible taste in the mouths of consumers. And pretty much ruined the reputation of a nation.
Today, some of the leading brands in the smartphone market are Chinese – Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo, Lenovo (which also has Motorola), Vivo, OnePlus…the list is an impressive one. But the perceived taint of being a “Chinese brand” still persists in many sections of the media. So much so that some sections thought that OnePlus had been called so just to sound “less Chinese,” a notion that made co-founder Carl Pei raise his eyebrows in genuine surprise. No less surprised were Gionee and Oppo officials when they were asked how a “Chinese brand” could demand a premium price from Indian consumers. “Yaar, premium premium hota hai. Isme Chinese, American, Indian, Sri Lankan kahaan se aa gaya” (“What is premium is premium. Where does Chinese, American or Sri Lankan come into it?”) I remember Gionee’s Arvind Vohra saying with a laugh, when asked that particular question.
Witty though that riposte was, a casual – scarily so because most people subscribe to it without realising it – racism towards Chinese brands does seem to exist in many parts of the media. Far too often, anything that goes wrong with a Xiaomi, a LeEco, an Oppo or any other device from a Chinese brand is dismissed with a carpet “oh that is expected, it is a Chinese brand” explanation. In fact even some Indian brands are criticised as being nothing more than “importers of cheap Chinese goods” on which they place their own brand names.
“Yes, we know that some Chinese brands in the past did not come with great devices, but you have to remember, they came with no official clearance, no service support, nothing. It is slightly unfair that you judge those who are coming totally legitimately with complete sales and services support by the ones who did not,” Xiaomi’s Manu Jain told me when I raised the “Chinese” perception issue.
Perhaps there is no better example of the low esteem in which Chinese brands are held in some sections than the way in which Lenovo’s acquisition of Motorola was treated. Although Motorola had twice exited the Indian market with little or no notice to its consumers, shutting service centres, leaving many consumers in the lurch and even
though many of the company’s products had come a cropper in the market, the prevalent attitude was that the move would benefit Lenovo as it would improve its brand equity. “The association with Moto will give a positive aura to Lenovo, which is after all, a Chinese company,” I remember a blogger remarking about the deal, clearly forgetting that Lenovo had not done too badly on its own in the Indian market. “Every time they do something right, it is because of the ‘Moto’ influence. Every time they do something wrong, it is because they are a Chinese company,” Ashish Bhatia, a colleague of ours, summed up Lenovo’s perception blues of late. Company executives have been keeping a tactful silence on the matter, but the hurt in their eyes is all too visible when references are made about how their products “seem to have improved since acquiring Motorola.”
Fortunately, the perception of Chinese brands seems to be changing among general consumers, resulting in some impressive sales. However, challenges remain, most notably in the mid-to-high end segment, where many still prefer “established” brands to “Chinese” ones. “Look, I don’t mind someone picking a LG, a HTC, a Sony or a Samsung phone ahead of a Xiaomi if they like those more. Hey, those companies have made some awesome devices and we respect that. But don’t turn Xiaomi down just because it is Chinese,” I remember Hugo Barra saying to a few bloggers at the launch of the Mi 5, when asked why a person seeking a high end phone would prefer a Mi 5 over the likes of the Galaxy S7.
And yet, negative perceptions about Chinese brands persist in parts of the media. One executive pointed out that while Chinese brands were always referred to as “Chinese brands”, others were not treated so. “You don’t always see Samsung being called a Korean brand or Sony a Japanese brand or Apple an American brand, do you? It is almost as if we are being judged all the time. Not by our product – that would be fair – but by our nationality,” he said with a wry grin.
We don’t know what it will take to correct matters. Perhaps consumer preference will influence those who cover brands as well. But one thing we do know: Chinese brands do deserve more credit and respect than they are getting. We will leave the final word about Chinese brands with Hugo Barra:
“Why so negative about the Chinese? They have an awesome history in manufacturing. Look at the Great Wall.“