“I knew you would not like it…” A Xiaomi executive tells me, as he sees me wince at the news of Katrina Kaif endorsing the company’s latest device, the Redmi Y1, which was released earlier this week. Why did I wince? After all, using celebrities is pretty much well-trodden ground when it comes to tech marketing in India. Rare is the brand that does not have a celebrity endorser of some sort or the other – a famous, familiar face that peddles their product from billboards, publications, and television.
The issue? One of those rare brands that did NOT use celebrities and indeed, did not believe in major advertising was Xiaomi.
Fast backward to 2014 when the brand made its first appearance on Indian shores, and Hugo Barra (then Xiaomi’s global Vice President) had declared that the company was able to keep prices on its phones super low, because it did not incur “overheads and expenses” like conventional advertising, offline retail marketing and so on. Of course, that has been changing gradually in the months that have followed – the company has had its share of conventional ads in print, television and even on billboards. And the past few weeks have seen it make a very impressive offline retail thrust too – but Celebrity endorsement was, however, something it had stubbornly steered clear of – in fact it even used its own employees for its campaign around the Redmi Note 4, something a colleague remarked about when comparing it with the celebrity-oriented approach of other companies.
So the appearance of Katrina Kaif on stage to endorse the Y1 and get selfies clicked with Xiaomi India head Manu Jain was about as surprising as Michael Jackson rising from the dead and doing a moonwalk on the Great Wall of China. Yes, the audience went wild at the appearance of the Bollywood star, but there were cynical “so they are being like everyone else” smiles from the media and a few murmurs from the Mi faithful about the company going back on its “core values.” Whatever happened to those claims about saving money by not going the “conventional marketing way”?
Or to put in the words of one of my friends: “Dammit, are they becoming just like another company? Multiple launches, celebs, the works…”
Well, there do seem to be some grounds for that theory – the company has launched seven devices this year, which is quite a step up from the 3-4 products per year it used to do in the past. And yes, it now advertises like others do, if not quite as much; it has special partner stores and is available at conventional retail stores too; and well, it now has a celeb face as well.
But what a lot of the Mi faithful and observers are forgetting is that what the company also has now is a massive market share. As per the most recent reports, Xiaomi is only a whisker behind Samsung in terms of smartphone market share – a huge change from the days when it was available only online and through flash sales. It is also now manufacturing in India. From being the underdog, it has graduated to being a top one. And as a famous general is reputed to have said, “You do not indulge in guerrilla warfare when you can defeat your enemy in the field…” In military terms, Xiaomi had no option but to play smart and small three years ago. Today, it can slog it out along with the big boys. You cannot hope to be the top smartphone brand in India by avoiding offline retail or by stubbornly refusing to advertise.
We do not know whether the move to use Katrina Kaif as an endorser will work (she has endorsed Sony Ericsson and BlackBerry in the past, incidentally), but it certainly underlines the company’s identity of being one of the top players in the world’s second-largest smartphone market. As one of my colleagues remarked: “They could not afford to advertise in the past. Now they can. Why shouldn’t they?” The fact that the Y1 is being seen as a “lifestyle device” which is likely to sell more offline is also strengthening the case of using a famous face. Celebrities might not work wonders for online-only products, but they do have resonance in conventional offline retail, giving the brand visibility in less tech-savvy circles.
Three years ago, the company was a newcomer and trying to win some space for itself. Today, it is fighting for the number one spot in the market. With great market share comes great change.
But does this represent a move from the brand’s core values, which are built around smart and consistent communication and community building? We will let Xiaomi vice-president Manu Jain have the last word. Eyes twinkling as always, he responded to our query about Xiaomi changing with a typical grin: “We are a startup. And one of the advantages of being a startup is that we can try different things. We move fast, but while we try new things, we do not move away from the core values of the brand. Ever. We will always be about great products at great prices. Is this (using Katrina Kaif as a brand endorser) a change? Well, it is something we are trying out. We won’t know what works unless we try out new things, will we?”