It started off with a signboard near the venue of a product launch in the afternoon. Many dismissed it as a one-off. But by the evening, it was very much on Twitter, evoking reactions that ranged from shock to outrage to amusement. A couple of days later, it took the form of a product bundle that claimed to deliver much more than a single product did. All this pretty much lays the foundation of something we have not seen for a while.

A proper, full, front on battle in the budget flagship segment.

Yes, we are talking to the constant sniping by Xiaomi’s new brand Poco, at the incumbent budget flagship champion, OnePlus. While we have seen our share of brand battles, this one is rather unusually sharp, although to be fair, it is rather one-sided at the moment (OnePlus has not deigned to react).

“do the ma+h”: the gloves are off between poco and oneplus! - oneplus vs poco

It might be one of the most talked about segments of the Indian smartphone market, but the budget flagship segment – where brands offer high-end specs at surprisingly affordable prices – can hardly be ever have been said to be bitterly contested. Yes, there would be the odd exchange between followers of different brands, and sometimes the e-tailers stepped into the fray too, but the brands themselves, by and large, kept a low profile when it came to taking pot shots at each other. So for instance, Honor would sometimes take a mild stab at OnePlus but, by and large, this would be in the form of the odd cheeky hashtag. You never quite had an open media assault of the sort that used to occur between Samsung and Apple or Apple and Android in the international media. It was almost as if everyone had agreed to co-exist with relative amiability. And it was a state of affairs that suited OnePlus just fine. The brand always had a fiercely passionate following, but apart from a brief tussle with the Mi 4, the Moto Z2 Force and a few Honor variants, it never was really – verbally – challenged in its claims of being THE budget flagship of choice.

There were no signs that that would change when Xiaomi introduced its new brand, Poco, and its budget flagship, the F1, in the Indian market. Barring a few comparisons during the launch and the briefing, the OnePlus 6 (the 6T was still a leak rather than a product at that stage), was not directly targeted. Yes, Poco too utilized the speed positioning that OnePlus used for its devices, but any conflict between the two brands seemed to be restricted to the marketplace, rather than the media.

That pretty much changed on October 30, when OnePlus launched the OnePlus 6T in India.

“do the ma+h”: the gloves are off between poco and oneplus! - xiaomi trolls oneplus

People arriving at the venue were surprised to see strategically placed Poco signboards, highlighting the price difference between the Poco F1 and the OnePlus 6T, and asking viewers, rather cheekily to “do the ma+h.” And this was no flash in the pan – the Poco India Twitter handle then made a series of tweets on the same theme – that the Poco F1 could do everything (and perhaps a bit more) than the OnePlus 6T and that too at a much lower price, inviting users to “do the ma+h.” And while being direct enough, the tweets were clever enough too – “Never settle for OverPriced”, went one, using the OnePlus tagline and also capitalizing the “O” and “P” in “overpriced.” That was not the end of it either.

Earlier yesterday, Poco released what it extremely cheekily called the “OP” bundle, offering a stack of Mi products along with the Poco F1, for prices that were actually the same as the OnePlus 6T variants – Rs 37,999 and Rs 44,999. Now we had heard of brands claiming that you could buy much more with the money you would save from buying their product rather than a more expensive one from a rival, but this is perhaps the first time when we have seen a brand in India actually bundle its own products with a core product actually to walk its marketing talk. So you had a Poco F1 available in an “OP bundle” (ouch, those initials) that came with an assortment of goods that included an Air Purifier, a fitness band, a power bank, headphones (3.5 audio jack ones, another ouch, when you consider the OnePus 6T had ditched the same), and heaven (and Xiaomi) knows what else – all in special “bundle” packs that cost exactly as much as a OnePlus 6T! Imagine Samsung bundling a TV and/or a refrigerator with a Note in a package that costs as much as an iPhone XS Max? That!

OnePlus has so far not risen to the bait, maintaining silence, but battle on its behalf has been joined by members of its very faithful community. Many are calling Poco’s approach “in poor taste” and a “marketing stunt,” but we honestly cannot fault the Xiaomi brand on those counts. Targeting a rival is a legitimate advertising strategy, albeit a risky one, because one might end up being defined by one’s rival, rather than by one’s own qualities. And to be fair, there have been no low blows from Xiaomi. Indeed, some of the wit (the capitalizing of O and P, the stealing of the Never Settle line) has had some neutrals smiling. It is certainly not as in your face as Samsung’s assaults on the iPhone – Xiaomi has not poked fun at anyone in OnePlus or any OnePlus user, but has stubbornly stuck to a price and spec comparison. The result? While OnePlus loyalists are having to rely on more grey concepts like brand and design (which can be subjective) and marketing morality, Poco is fighting in the black and white land – prices, specs – where answers are more objective.

And that is something that has not happened for a while. For, OnePlus has never really been confronted in the Indian market in this manner ever since it arrived in the country. There were the odd thrust and parry, but by and large, it had been smooth sailing. It is not as if the likes of Honor, Asus, Nokia, Motorola, and Xiaomi have not compared their products with the Never Settling brand, but those comparisons seemed to be more token gestures than sustained ones. Some attribute this to the fact that unlike OnePlus, other brands had multiple devices to be concerned about, and their attention inevitably shifts to other products. Some feel it is this lack of a vocal opposition that has allowed the brand not just to retain but indeed expand its market share even though it has kept increasing the price of its products – the OnePlus One had a base price of Rs 19,999, remember? Poco, being a new brand, however, also has just one product at the time of writing, and so far at least, has the luxury of focusing its attention on OnePlus.

Of course, all this counts for nothing if it does not translate into sales or brand visibility. And given the stature of OnePlus and its own communications muscle, it would be totally premature to predict that Poco has managed to breach its fortress. That said, it certainly has rattled its cage. What also cannot be denied is that it certainly has got the Poco F1 not just back in the spotlight (from which it had sort of stepped back after its launch) but has also managed to drizzle (if not quite rain) on the party of its biggest rival.

The big question now is: Will OnePlus Settle for this? Pun intended.

Watch this space.

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