Increasing the price tag of a phone is a tricky business. Especially when your reputation rests on being a “value for money” brand, which has relied heavily on price to stand out from the competition. A brand which is known for premium products more often than not finds it easier to move down the price chain – it is the other way round that is very challenging. The likes of Xiaomi, Micromax, and even Motorola have all made efforts in this regard, but have had results that have varied from the mixed to the abysmal.
One brand which, however, has managed to duck this trend is OnePlus.
From super affordable to relatively affordable
If that sounds difficult to believe, throw your mind back to the first OnePlus device, which was launched in India in late 2014 at a price of Rs 21,999 for the 64 GB model. At that point of time, it was staggering value for money, so much so that it totally overshadowed the Xiaomi Mi 4, the successor of the Mi 3, which can claim to have started the budget flagship trend in India. Mid-2015 saw the arrival of the OnePlus 2, and also a slight bump up in the pricing – this time the 64 GB variant would put you back by Rs 24,999. The OnePlus 2, now, is considered to be one of the most buggy devices to have come out from OnePlus. It had a number of issues, not least a new UI (Oxygen OS) which had its share of teething troubles. But even with all that and a slightly increased price, the phone was perceived as very good value for money, and definitely on the affordable side, costing a fraction of the flagships from the likes of Samsung, LG, Sony, and HTC. People put up with the bugs, freezes, and crashes, putting patience on the altar of economy. In the interim period, OnePlus also launched a more compact, more affordable device – the OnePlus X at Rs 16,999. It seemed an affirmation that the company did not want to stray too far from its good specs at affordable prices roots.
When the OnePlus 3 was released at Rs 27,999, in 2016, however, there was a distinct feeling that OnePlus was slowly moving from being a budget flagship to a slightly more premium avatar. This was reflected in the device’s design too, with metal being used and the older sandstone finish back being cast aside. These feelings were strengthened when OnePlus introduced the OnePlus 3T a few months later at an even higher price of Rs 29,999 and also brought in a 128 GB edition at Rs 34,999. And if any confirmation were needed of the brand’s premium intentions, the OnePlus 5 and OnePlus 5T in 2017 all but did so, with price tags of Rs 32,999 for the 64 GB edition and Rs 37,999 for the 128 GB one.
Do the math: in three years, across four phone models (five, if you count the all too brief OnePlus X), OnePlus had moved the price of its high-end model from Rs 21,999 to Rs 37,999 – a Rs 16,000 price increase, or for those who love their percentages, about 72.73 percent! And judging by the rumors about the price of the OnePlus 6, another increase in price is very likely.
Is there no one (Plus) else?
All of which begs the question as to how the brand, which started out as being THE affordable flagship, is managing to succeed (we have no figures, but OnePlus claims to be doing very well indeed and its handsets are extremely visible) even while pushing its device’s price higher every year? The answer, as always, is not easy. Of course, there will be those who will claim that the increase in price is actually just a reflection of the increasing prices of components and also that OnePlus has been pushing the spec sheet higher with every iteration, thus retaining that “value for money” essence – there is an 8 GB/ 128 GB variant out there, a rarity even in Android flagship land. There will also be those who insist that like Xiaomi in the lower and middle price segments, OnePlus has succeeded in building a community of loyal followers, who will put up with any price rise (interestingly though, Xiaomi has not really had any dramatic price increases in its low and mid-segment device range).
Both lines of thought have their strengths (and flaws), but what also cannot be denied is that OnePlus’ steadily increasing prices have also been, by some stroke of fortune, accompanied by the declining fortunes of other brands in the Android flagship fleet. OnePlus’ budget flagship contenders have been disappearing over the years, so even as the Never Settling brand increases prices, users have fewer alternatives to turn to.
If that sounds difficult to believe, then just consider the sort of competition that the first OnePlus device had. While it was staggering value for money, it was not as if people did not have alternatives – the Xiaomi Mi 3 was in great demand, the Mi 4 was competitively priced, the Asus ZenFone 5 had got rave reviews, Lenovo was trying to crack the flagship zone with devices like the Vibe X2 and the Vibe Z2 Pro, and everyone’s darling, the Nexus 5 was still around. Even in the following year, the Mi 4 was a contender and the ZenFone 2 actually surprised many people by being the first smartphone with 4 GB RAM, Lenovo released the excellent Vibe X3, and all were within striking range of the OnePlus 2, which as we mentioned previously, did have its share of issues. In fact, even then OnePlus 3 did have its share of competitors – Xiaomi released the Mi 5 before it, at a lower price, albeit with lesser storage and later in the year, Lenovo would make what many consider to have been its last real effort in the budget flagship segment, the Z2 Plus. But neither of those products really took off, and 2016 also saw Asus quit the budget flagship race and instead go for higher price tags. It was also the year in which Google ended the relatively affordable Nexus range and went for a more premium approach with the Pixel. In a manner of speaking, by the time the OnePlus 3T came out in late 2016, it was hardly facing any competition.
Adding up the Pluses to equal Premium?
And if 2016 had seen budget flagships thinning out, then 2017 saw them all but fade away. Xiaomi did not bring its Mi 6 flagship to India, and even though it did release the high-end Mi Mix 2, its focus seemed to be more on the lower and middle price segments. Lenovo, Motorola, and Asus were almost altogether absent from the budget flagship stakes. In fact, the only brand that seemed to confront the OnePlus 5 and 5T was Huawei’s sister brand, Honor, but it had very limited success, for a variety of reasons (another story that is). What’s more, the likes of HTC, Sony, and LG were fading out in the premium flagship race, so much so that towards the end of 2017, the OnePlus 5T was being considered as competition for the Galaxy S8, the Pixel 2 XL and even the iPhone 8 Plus. Yes, it was more expensive than ever before, but it was way more affordable than other “aspirational” (we use the word with quotes) Android flagships. And it was not just about the price – OnePlus was also acquiring a bit of a “premium” sheen which allowed it to outgun devices like the Nokia 8 and the Moto Z2 Force, both of which were competitively priced (although they came relatively late to the market in India) and from allegedly “better known” brands.
As the launch of the OnePlus 6 draws near, we do not really see too much evidence of anything having changed in that regard. Yes, we reckon there will be some raised eyebrows if the OnePlus 6 ends up being significantly more expensive than its predecessor (and it is a fair chance it will be that – every OnePlus device with a number has cost more than the one that preceded it), but as long as it faces no major competition, we do not see it failing. Simply because at the time of writing, it seems to have no major competitor. Lenovo, Motorola, Xiaomi, and Asus seem to have lost their taste for budget flagships, and other brands are either facing rough weather or are charging prices that make OnePlus seem affordable in comparison (you can purchase almost two OnePlus 5T devices for the price of a Samsung Galaxy S8+ or a Pixel 2 XL, for instance). Like it or not, OnePlus is not just dominating the budget flagship market but is also – oh the irony – making it steadily more pricey. It is now almost unthinkable to get a budget flagship device for under Rs 25,000 – a far cry from a few years ago when people had multiple options.
It is hardly OnePlus’ fault that the competition is not standing up to be counted, but there is a school of thought that feels that the company might be getting into dangerous territory as it sheds its underdog tag – as the OnePlus 2 proved, people are willing to be more forgiving of a product that does not cost the earth. As prices go up, so do expectations, but what goes down is consumer patience. It is a tricky wicket to bat on, to use cricket parlance, but OnePlus has so far managed to do so outstandingly well.
So come mid-May, be ready for a higher priced OnePlus 6, and 6T. Yes, it will offer better specs than ever before and is likely to be a very good phone indeed. But it will also come with a price tag that will creep ever so gently closer to the premium zone. And barring something untoward, it is a fair chance that it will do well even at that price. For at the moment, it is a shark in a sea of mediocrity. People might wince at increased prices but really have no other option, with Honor being the only real contestant in that segment at the time of writing, but with a very small market and mindshare in comparison.
It might not please everyone, but the fact is that OnePlus has successfully extended its Never Settle philosophy to pricing as well.