Freedom 251 turns into a fiasco

By Prabhakar Mundkur , New Delhi | In Digital | February 19, 2016
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How and why the world's cheapest smart phone flopped with a big bang.

If you were one of those eager beavers like me who was waiting for India's $4 smartphone wonder and madly prancing around after seeing the two full-page ads in your morning newspaper, and rushing to their website to book yourself the world's cheapest smartphone, you were in for a rude surprise.

Because a $4 phone was what everybody wanted and eagerly waited for even if you were a snobbish iPhone 6 plus user. A $4 smartphone even for the snob is reverse snobbery at its best. A good way to show you are not infra dig.

The first ad that appeared promised the Indian masses that it was going to deliver them into the digital age (even those who were denied of Free Basics a month ago). The headline boldly said 'Sabka Haq', which translated in English as 'Everyone's birthright'. It was followed by a sub-head that said ' Sapne Sach Hongey' or 'your dreams will come true'. But oh, what a nightmare! The generous use of the Indian tri-colour was also unfortunately misplaced.

Funnily enough it was sad that the name of the manufacturer was Ringing Bells, because all the wrong bells were ringing for the poor phone manufacturer this morning. Its baseline read 'Everyone's just a call away', but they were some distance from a click away.

While I madly rushed to my computer dropping everything else in sight, I thought I had managed to book myself one, only to be disappointed at the buy stage. After filling in my details like millions of Indians and pressing the buy button you were either directed to a blank page or re-directed to filling in your personal details again, and again, and again. After going through the process a good five times, I blamed Apple for its Safari browser which doesn't work well with all the websites. I then went on to Firefox and Chrome but with no better luck, and only to find that Freedom#251 was already trending on Twitter with the disappointed millions having fun at the expense of the poor manufacturer.

In fact, customers were so unprepared that if you were to enter 0.5 phones as the quantity, what showed up was a phone at half the price. The delivery price also got halved from Rs 40 to Rs 20 in the process. Logical after all. Half a phone must have half the delivery charges, shouldn't it?!

So, technically, you could buy half your phone at half the price.

The second ad had the brand promise 'Stay Ahead in Life'. Most inappropriate as you felt you were in reverse gear while struggling on their website. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a shame because what could have been the pride of India quickly turned out to be a fiasco for Make In India, Digital India and Skill India, the three entities the brand was paying obeisance to.

Half the phone for half the price

You were almost reminded of Internet 1.0 when over anxious start-ups were hastily launching their products only to be disappointed by their servers crashing.

It was actually such a big blow that one couldn't but help feel bad for the manufacturer. In New Delhi, in the meantime, the brand was getting ready to be launched with VVIPs from the Government with the Defence Minister and a Member of Parliament.

So, what went wrong?

There is no doubt that here was a company in a hurry which had not done its due diligence before its launch. Proving that all the painful trouble that global companies go through before launching their products, and all the criticism they draw for being slow and stodgy, there is merit in being well-prepared and right, rather than quick and wrong.

In the afternoon, the manufacturer issued an apology on its website, but it was a matter of too little, too late. For most Indians, the disastrous launch may mean that the product may need some time to take off, although Rs 291 including postage seems like a steal for a smartphone.

Vikas Mehta says, "This has been a disappointment. Given that both Nano and Aakash Tablets failed despite jaw-dropping prices, this brand hasn't learned a thing."

Professor Anand Narasimha says, "You seldom get such disruptive opportunities and to squander them with poor preparation is sacrilege. Remember Flipkart's first Big Billion sale!"

The Economic Times, meanwhile, claimed to have seen a letter that the Indian Cellular Association had written to the Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, saying the IT department should go into the depth of the issue, adding that the price could not be below Rs 291 even after it is subsidised.

The phone could also have copyright infringement problems because the app icons on the phone look like they have been copied from iPhone.

Ringing Bells, I am sure, has learnt its lesson and understood that they it was dumb in launching the world's cheapest smart phone in such a hurry.

If there is one marketing lesson in this, it is that speed is good, but never at the cost of detail, and slow and steady usually wins the race as the good old adage told us. And, as our previous experience shows, the cheapest in the world is not necessarily the best!

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