India is an overcrowded smartphone market with more than 150 brands. But a Chinese brand has found a way to get consumers’ attention, riding on the tried-and-tested formula: cricket and Bollywood.
Vivo, a smartphone brand owned by China’s BBK Electronics, paid Rs2,199 crore (around $330 million) to sponsor India’s most-watched cricket event, the Indian Premier League (IPL). This is over four-and-a-half times more compared to the previous sponsorship figure for the IPL.
Simultaneously, Vivo has signed up Bollywood actor Aamir Khan as its brand ambassador. Khan reportedly charges around Rs4 crore per day of shooting, making his annual brand endorsement fee around Rs15 crore.
But this is nothing new for Vivo, which has aced the art of standing apart from the crowd ever since it first came to India.
A rapid rise
Vivo entered India in 2014 when the country’s smartphone market had started gathering steam, and some established brands were already selling over a million smartphones each quarter. At that time, the market was dominated by South Korea’s Samsung, with other fast-growing brands including global players like Motorola and Sony, and local ones such as Karbonn and Micromax.
But Vivo gained instant popularity with features that appealed to Indians, like the world’s slimmest smartphone, and phones with specialised cameras that catered to users’ craze for selfies.
The company focused on the mid-segment category of phones priced between Rs8,000 and Rs25,000, an affordable sweet-spot in a price-sensitive market.
Unlike players such as Xiaomi and Motorola that were focusing on online sales, Vivo took to carpet-bombing the country in terms of distribution and invested on getting its products in offline stores across India. It also managed to draw in retailers by offering them generous margins.
The strategy worked, given that even now, only a third of all smartphone sales in India happens online.
“The strength of the vendor lies in its offline extension. (Vivo is) widely spread in India and this distribution in India has worked in its favour,” Jaipal Singh, a senior analyst with market research firm IDC India, told Quartz.
The company also structured its management team such that it had multiple state-level entities to handle distribution and manage the markets, Singh explained.
Marketing was one of Vivo’s primary areas of focus. The company spent millions of dollars on putting up billboards across the country and splashing advertisements across media channels, said Tarun Pathak, associate director at Counterpoint Research.
It used the biggest platforms and celebrities. In 2015, Vivo sponsored the IPL for the first time. And the following year, it signed on Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh as its brand ambassador.
This helped Vivo grow rapidly in a short period of time. By the first half of 2017, it was among the country’s top five smartphone brands, holding around 12% of the country’s smartphone market.
BBK Electronics did not respond to a detailed questionnaire from Quartz.
The second coming
But the tide started turning in the last few months of 2017.
As online sales of mobile phones started picking up, several smartphone makers, like Xiaomi, were able to lure buyers with special e-commerce discounts and exclusive launches, eating into Vivo’s market share.
“Vivo also didn’t refresh its products,” Pathak pointed out. At a time when most other brands were launching new phones nearly every quarter, Vivo didn’t have many new products on the shelves, and this directly impacted their market share.
However, Vivo appears to have begun to make amends, and the brand is reworking its distribution strategy to focus on both online and offline customers. “(Vivo) understood that…it can’t ignore online sales. Now they’ve invested their time and money to being available online also,” Singh of IDC said.
The company has stepped up its product offerings, too, with the launch of its Vivo V9 phone, which analysts say has been flying off the shelves and will help the company regain some of the lost ground.
It has also streamlined its marketing efforts. “Now it is more dedicated. It is not everywhere but (focuses on) a few relevant things (such as the IPL) to make most of the eyeballs. Their strategy now is to go deep rather than wide which can help them going forward,” Pathak pointed out.
And while all the spending on marketing and endorsements has worked wonders so far, it now may be time to tighten the purse strings.
“Now, to be more sustainable in the market, they have to cut down on their margins for sure,” Singh said. “They have to lower their marketing spends a bit. The market is consolidating now and competing neck to neck (with brands like Xiaomi) will be very challenging for them.”