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It has the product, price and the performance, but Poco needs a tale

The poisoned chalice that is price

by: - Last updated on: August 30th, 2018

Less than a week has passed since its official arrival, but Xiaomi’s sub-brand, Poco definitely seems to have ticked most boxes when it comes to attention. Its first device, the Poco F1 has got largely positive reviews, and if rumors are to believed, has people lining up to get it (warning: brace yourself for an onslaught of abuse against the flash sale model when many people do not get it). There are many who have already anointed it as a potential OnePlus killer – hardly surprising when you consider what it offers and the price it delivers it at (remember the OnePlus started at a price of below Rs 21,999).

All of which would seem to point to a perfect start. Doubtless. However, the real challenge for the brand starts now.

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For while Poco has got the attention it is looking for, and also a very promising product at a killer price(read our review), it now needs to build on it. And history would indicate that that is a very different and difficult task. For notwithstanding all the (some choreographed, we suspect) screaming and cheering that accompanied the launch of the Poco F1, the fact is that this is not the first time a flagship level device has been released at what seems to be a surprisingly affordable price. And not all of them have clicked. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, great specs and a low price do not guarantee success.

Yes, we know the story of the Mi 3 from Xiaomi (although many forget that the Mi 3 came to India almost a year after its official launch, unlike the Poco F1, facilitating a much lower price), but then Xiaomi itself did not exactly set the market on fire with the Mi 4 and Mi 5. Lenovo came a cropper with the glassy and well specced Z2 Plus: Asus did not get the sort of success it had hoped for from the Zenfone 2, the world’s first smartphone with 4 GB RAM; Honor brought the Honor 7 flagship at a relatively low price but it too got a lukewarm response; and of course, the Yuphoria spelt disaster for Micromax’s YU sub-brand, in spite of offering an amazing spec to price ratio (and an endorsement from Cyanogen, the geeks’ darling, to boot). Yes, there will be those who will trot out reasons for their failure inrush retrospect – the Yuphoria was too buggy, the Z2 Plus was too glassy, the Zenfone’s UI was overwhelming and so on – but the fact remains that these devices did not fly from stores even when their weaknesses were not so apparent (they came to light much later). Even the one brand that for many has become synonymous with budget flagships, OnePlus, has steadily moved up the price ladder – to the extent that its latest flagship is within striking range of flagships from the likes of LG, Vivo, and Oppo.

Flagship specs at a low price are a great starting point, clearly, but from what we have seen, they cannot form the foundation of sustained success. If they did, then Honor would have been giving OnePlus a run for its money in India over the past year, as it kept offering competitive devices at similar or lower prices. It has not happened.

The reason? OnePlus had a rather different ace up its sleeve. One that had nothing to do with technology and very little to do with pricing either. It had a narrative. Or in simple English: it had a story. And it told it well and effectively.

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That may sound simplistic, but cast a closer look at the brand and you will get an idea of just how important it is. OnePlus has managed to do the seemingly illogical – moved from a price point of Rs 21,999 to Rs 34,999 in a period of four years and yet still commands the “budget flagship” tag. Of course, good products have played their role in this, but no less important has been the narrative the company has built around it. Every increase in price has been justified by extensive explanations and in keeping with its Never Settle, the brand has made it a habit to keep making changes. And just as importantly, has talked about them. Time and again. Whether it was the dual cameras, 18:9 aspect ratio, the notch, the special editions… OnePlus always had a story to tell. You may not have believed it every time, but you heard it.

And ironically, that is something that has been slightly missing in Poco so far. The whole story about scouring Reddit forums and secret meetings to find out the requirements of users is frankly, well, routine – you would expect companies to do that (unless they were headed by Steve Jobs, who was not the greatest fan of consumer feedback). The Poco F1 is, without doubt, a great device but the decision to stay openly allied with Xiaomi is a bit of a double edged sword – it does have the rub-off effect of being a sub-brand of India’s top smartphone brand but on the flip side, also has set tongues wagging to the tune of “Xiaomi was not getting much success with phones above Rs 20,000 itself so started a new brand to grab that segment, just like Oppo did with OnePlus.” The fact that this line of thought prevails in spite of Poco opting for a distinct design and even using a different launcher to change the appearance of its phone’s UI just sums up the extent of the challenge facing the new brand.

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There is also the little matter of going up against the OnePlus itself. Although the Poco F1 has been very cleverly priced across three distinct price segments, a large segment of the media has already crowned it a potential OnePlus challenger – obviously, given its specifications and pricing, and well, the comparisons made with the OnePlus 6 during the Poco F1 launch by the brand itself. Yes, the price and specs of the device compare favorably with the OnePlus 6, but then we have seen this before – the Asus Zenfone 5Z and the Honor 10 did not do too badly in this department either. It would also be a poisoned chalice for Poco if people preferred the F1 over the OnePlus 6 based mainly on price, for that would limit Poco’s options of moving up the price chain. Xiaomi itself discovered that the hard way with the Mi 3 – the Mi 4 was considered expensive because it was launched at Rs 19,999, which in spite of being very affordable for the specs it offered was seen as “overpriced” because the Mi 3 had been priced at Rs 13,999.

There is a very high chance that the Poco F1 will be sold out within minutes, if not seconds, of being available online. However, just how much of that can be attributed to its price rather than product quality is going to determine its future. “We might come with a much lower price tag, but we want to be picked for quality. So much so that if a consumer saw a Poco F1 and a OnePlus 6, he or she would pick the F1, irrespective of the price,” a Xiaomi executive told us at the launch. We are not sure that would happen, given the extent to which memories of the Mi 3 (which was best known for its price) have been invoked. Some would say it is not a bad place to be, but then the Mi 3 did turn out to be a bit of a millstone around the necks of its successors. If Poco has to be a force in the higher price segment, it will have to move beyond being known mainly for its price, which is, to be honest, Redmi territory. And for that to happen, the new brand’s image will need to be clarified and strengthened.

It has the product. The price. And the performance.

And come August 29, we are sure it will have the sales too.

But in the long run, what Xiaomi’s new brand needs is a narrative.

Tell us a tale, Poco.

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