On the surface, it was a hilarious ad. Indian RJ and actor Danish Sait got into the shoes of one of India’s most famous (and controversial) new anchors, and adopting the anchor’s typically aggressive style of speaking, proceeded to highlight (holler, more like) that Xiaomi had sold an unbelievable 20 million units of the Redmi Note 7 series. He then challenged the “Oppo-sition” (the “Oppo” part was markedly pronounced) to say something about this, claiming it had been decimated (“khalaas”!), and finally asked people to buy the Redmi Note 7 to find out what was so special about it. While doing all this, Sait also screamed at the show producer, one of his assistants who got him coffee and wondered if Xiaomi India head Manu Jain was buying and hiding Redmi Note devices in his house!
It was two minutes of a rather clever ranting and raving, the sort that will make most observers smile. Even my mum had a laugh at it, going “he sounds just like A***b,” although she was a little curious as to why “he is mispronouncing ‘opposition.’ His English seems so good otherwise.”
Well, that pronunciation (mis- or otherwise) was perhaps the feature of the ad that most tech observers seem to have latched on to. For those who still have not got it, the marked way in which Sait said “Oppo-sition” was a not-too-subtle dig at one of Xiaomi’s rivals in the Indian market, Oppo. And perhaps a subtle dig at Realme, a former Oppo sub-brand – some would insist that this was actually the real (pun unintended, really, and that pun was also unintended) of the ad, given the manner in which Redmi and Realme have been squaring off on social media in recent times. Above all, however, the ad was in keeping the slightly more “edgy” style that Xiaomi seems to have adopted beginning with its Redmi Note 7 Pro campaign earlier this year.
This change of approach is making many industry observers wonder why the brand has chosen this path. After all, it wasn’t as if its previous approach of focusing mainly on its product and community had not been paying rich dividends. We have always maintained that one of Xiaomi’s biggest strengths was its communications. And until 2019, it had been largely non-confrontationist in approach, although its sister brand Poco had not fought shy of having a go at the mighty OnePlus. Yes, there would be the inevitable spec and price comparison spreadsheet in presentations, but that apart, Xiaomi’s approach in India seemed to revolve around what it was doing and its own products. The competition was not given too much time.
However, that is an approach that has changed militantly this year. In 2019, and particularly over the past six months, Xiaomi has been showing a willingness to mix it up with the competition time and again, and do so publicly. Whether it was criticizing processors being used on their devices, poking fun at plastic builds, to pointing out similarities in campaign messaging and even taking a subtle jibe at rival CEOs, the brand has been doing it all over the past few months. The brand even went public with what it claimed was evidence that attempts were made to scuttle its Redmi K20 device.
Why this sudden change in approach? The nation wants to know, as Sait would have said in his anchor avatar…even if it didn’t!
Well, the theories around the comms volte-face are numerous. Some think it is a sign of the brand getting nervous in the face of stiff competition. Others suggest that the brand is perhaps finally out of patience and reacting to criticism. And a very significant number of observers feel that the brand is rising to the baiting from Realme, a former Oppo brand whose devices have been doing rather well in the same mid-segment portion of the market that Xiaomi has been dominating.
Whatever the truth (and we cannot confirm it until we hear from Xiaomi itself in this regard), Xiaomi’s new approach seems to have polarised the tech community. While the tech segment has seen its share of competitive advertising, there are many who feel that such tactics simply give the competition space. There is also a line of thought that feels that taking potshots at the competition is not “classy,” and is equivalent to a sort of mud-slinging. There is definitely some truth to that – after all, there is a school of thought that insists that giving the competition any time at all in one’s own public communications is a waste of time.
On the flip side, there are those who feel that in a highly competitive market, it is perfectly all right to go out and hammer one’s competitors, especially if they have been doing the same to you, no matter how subtly. There are instances of both approaches – passive and aggressive – paying off, so I guess there would be no point in being holier than thou and saying which is better.
It does bear mentioning, however, that Xiaomi has generally tried to highlight its own products even while it brings down the competition. When Manu Jain showed that the plastic/carbonate back of a rival was not as good as a glass one, he made sure he compared it with a Redmi device. When the fun was made of a rival device’s processor, a Redmi device’s processor was showcased. Even when Sait called out the “Oppo-sition,” the focus was on the 20 million Redmi Note series phones sold by Xiaomi. The ads have not had the sort of all-out vitriol that we have seen in some other campaigns where the sole aim has been to trash the opposition – remember those ads that made fun of Apple Stores and Geniuses? Indeed, they have often always had a bit of humor to them, an entertainment element that many viewers like.
Is this new approach working? Some would say it isn’t, given the perceived lack of success of the Redmi K20 series. But on the flip side, the Xiaomi phone that is seen by many to have started the whole “edgy” communication strategy, the Redmi Note 7 Pro (and indeed the Note 7 series itself), has done staggeringly well. What’s more, Xiaomi continues to remain very much on top of the Indian smartphone market, and most of its products continue to sell very well indeed. Yes, the shares of the likes of Realme and Vivo are on the rise, but these brands seem to be making inroads into the shares of the likes of Motorola and Honor – Xiaomi’s own market share has not been hit that badly, if at all.
All of which leads us to believe that, whether you like it or not, Xiaomi is unlikely to step away from its new comms path in the coming days. Even as this is being written, the brand has come out with another ad in which someone who acts suspiciously like the President of a very powerful nation, stresses the point that Xiaomi is number one in phones, televisions, and wearables and that “anybody else says they are number one,” and insists that anybody else who makes that claim is “fake, really really fake.” The fact that a brand called Realme actually comes with “No.1” markings on its packaging cannot be… coincidental. Or can it?
Yes, it might be a little more spiky and might make some purists shake their heads in mild disapproval, but at the end of the day, it is really about business. The Danish Sait ads are just the latest in the series that seems to be telling the competition: “We know you are out there. And we are not afraid to hit out.”
The nation knows that, I guess.