Abid Hussain Barlaskar
Interviews

“I'm tasked with getting local insights”: Sumit Walia, OPPO India

An interview with the first Indian CMO of the Chinese smartphone brand

From putting quality checks on refrigerators at Videocon’s factories in 2001, to being the first Indian to lead Chinese smartphone brand OPPO’s marketing function, Sumit Walia has had an interesting two decades. He joined OPPO as VP, product and marketing, in July 2019 after spending close to a decade at Samsung, prior to which he worked at Tata Tele Business Services, Huawei and LG.

Before Walia was given OPPO India’s top marketing job, Will Yang, the brand’s present day South Asia CMO, handled the India ops from Gurgaon for five years. This shift in leadership is in line with the brand’s push for Indianisation. OPPO currently produces close to 50 million units annually and aims to double its capacity by 2020. With more muscle behind its local manufacturing, research and development, OPPO is keen on making India a global export hub.

OPPO is owned by Guangdong-based BBK Electronics, which also markets smartphone brands Vivo, realme and OnePlus. As per Counterpoint Research, OPPO grew 12 per cent YoY (in 2019 over 2018) and held the fifth position, with eight per cent market share in Q3 of 2019, after rival brands Xiaomi (26 per cent), Samsung (20 per cent), Vivo (17 per cent) and realme (16 per cent). OPPO’s annual growth was fuelled by demand for its budget segment device A5s and the F11 series.

The brand is currently undergoing a premiumisation exercise. With the launch of the Reno series of premium smartphones (priced between `24,000 and `50,000), OPPO is venturing into OnePlus’ territory. The brand’s premium makeover is not limited to models and will extend to facets like distribution and retail.

The brand team has worked with agencies like Contract India and Ogilvy in the recent past; however, there’s no creative agency on-record at the moment. Recently, the media business went to Dentsu Aegis Network.

On the media front, OPPO has been active across mediums and has also maintained big-ticket partnerships like the title sponsorship for Sunburn Music Festival and its partnership with the International Cricket Council (till September 2023). It also has its regional partnerships, for example, Straight Up Punjab, a Punjabi concert live-streamed digitally on YouTube globally.

In a quick chat with afaqs!Reporter, Walia gives us a peek into the brand’s ‘Make in India’ push, ‘premiumisation’ plan and more.

Sumit Walia
Sumit Walia
OPPO

Edited excerpts.

You recently took the marketing mantle from Will Yang. Does taking over from a Chinese colleague bring with it any special responsibilities? What does it mean for you?

When I met Charles (Wong), our CEO in India, we spoke about how OPPO envisaged the Indian market and about bringing local insights to the table. My forte and contribution is in terms of understanding the consumer and the market. What I have been tasked with is primarily getting local insights in terms of consumer behaviour, products, marketing, content, vernacular, etc.

One of the bigger shifts that OPPO is looking at is connecting deeply with Indian consumers. I remember his (Wong’s) words telling me to find that deeper connect.

"We operate as an independent and individual entity in India; there is no coordination among any of these brands": Sumit Walia

BBK Electronics, owner of OPPO, OnePlus, Vivo and realme, has the largest smartphone market share in India. All four brands are vying for a similar TG – isn’t there cannibalisation within the family?

We operate as an independent and individual entity in India; there is no coordination among any of these brands. We are looking only at the consumer, various segments, opportunities and geographies that are available to us, backed by our own independent manufacturing units, R&D centres, and our own marketing, sales and distribution channels.

"The app ecosystem, hardware and data are crossbreeding": Sumit Walia

Speaking of local insights, tell us what Indians look for in a smartphone today. What specifications drive purchase decisions?

There is a pre-4G and post-4G era. 4G brought along high penetration and affordable data, triggering unique smartphone user behaviour - binge consumption of entertainment, online gaming, photography, people building careers as influencers, etc. The app ecosystem, hardware and data are crossbreeding.

What consumers demand from their devices is at an all-time high, whether it is battery life, faster charging or a better camera. We have a portfolio to cater to all; we introduced the first water drop display to get the best screen to body ratio, for instance. Fast charging came about due to consumers’ requirement of ‘snacking charge’ as against long-term charging like charging the phone overnight. We are keeping an eye out for all this.

India is extremely fragmented and has many Indias within it. Finding the next need gap is the biggest challenge. While it is a daunting task, it’s also an opportunity. We have strategically invested in many things to gather insights about consumers and the next wave of technology that we can leverage.

Today, smartphone advertising is all about outshouting rivals and being prolific. Previously, seasonal bursts would suffice...

We are lucky to be in a category which doesn’t see seasonality. Demand for smartphones is at its highest, driven by consumers wanting more. Replacement cycles are shortening and that’s fuelling growth. This presents an opportunity for us marketers to keep engaging consumers who are always out in the market looking for the next best device. That’s what keeps all smartphone brands wanting to keep engaging with consumers, tell their story, put forth their propositions... even our launch cycles have changed; we are constantly launching devices.

That’s interesting. Given the shortening replacement cycles, which is less than two years now, how long does a new model last in your portfolio?

It is different for different segments. We cannot standardise it to 24-30 months, across models. Various price points exhibit various behaviours. There is a constant expectation and demand for newer technologies. We adapt to this change.

OPPO is a big digital advertiser, you invest in big ticket partnerships, and also use traditional channels like TV and outdoor. What role does each channel play? Do you use different channels to target different niches, like gamers, insta lovers, OTT bingers, etc.?

The core of our marketing strategy is fuelling passion points and creating a deeper connect. Whether we use TV, digital or association with entities like PubG or Sunburn, the core aspect is to find the right passion point. In the case of TV campaigns, with a celebrity influencer, it’s about leveraging the celeb’s qualities and registering our propositions in consumers’ minds. In case of sports associations, like Wimbledon or the ICC, it would be about fuelling the passion for sports. With our association with Straight Up Punjab (Punjabi digital concert) on YouTube, it’s about looking at music/entertainment as a passion point for connecting deeper in terms of geography or vernacular.

What about advertising on e-commerce sites, something we’re seeing a lot of these days?

It’s crucial. E-comm platforms are key to the whole consumer decision journey. While making a purchase decision, consumers don’t just check the options available to them, but also check what other consumers are speaking about. So, we’re strategically investing and aiding them in this process. Our marketing mix is backed by data. Smartphone category marketers are very close to consumption patterns.

"We look at holistic experiences: presales, point of sale - we have 60,000 sales touchpoints - and after sale - our service centres are adept at repairing phones within an hour": Sumit Walia

Right, but with precision targeting come privacy woes...

We don’t go into specifics or personal information hunts and derive insights from larger big data analysis. It is about large cohorts of consumers and trying to better that experience by putting the right information in front of them.

We look at holistic experiences: presales, point of sale - we have 60,000 sales touchpoints - and after sale - our service centres are adept at repairing phones within an hour. Everything is detailed today... the way we package products, the way we brand products, the way the contents of the box are laid out.

Also Read: "All the media we've done is one big experiment": Vikas Agarwal, OnePlus

You went premium with the Reno series, which has been OnePlus’ territory. Is OPPO still positioned as an affordable brand?

One of the most important pillars we are building for ourselves is premiumising experiences. We started the journey this year (2019) with our flagship store in Hyderabad. We’ll take it to multiple cities next year (2020) to create a premium environment. We already have 250 retail stores and are trying to premiumise them. Once the stores are in place, consumers will expect more from our devices. We will also be introducing a lot of premium, high end devices in 2020. The Reno series was a step in that direction.

We will still be a full range player and will provide the premium experience across price segments. We will also work on better designs across segments.

OPPO Flagship premium store in Hyderabad.
OPPO Flagship premium store in Hyderabad.

The economic slowdown is upon us. But some say the smartphone segment is recession proof...

Luckily for us, the smartphone industry is expecting high growth. Upgrade (of handsets) itself is driving growth. 4G penetration and affordable data are driving growth in tier 2/3 markets. Above that, there are around 450 million people using feature phones. There is a large base ready for an upgrade. All brands are growing. In our case, we witnessed 92 per cent growth in Q3 of 2019. I feel the slowdown hasn’t impacted the industry at all.

(This story was first published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on January 1, 2020.)

Editor's note:

Over a year ago, while mentoring a reporter, I was faced with a simple yet potent question, driven by his curiosity: When sibling advertising agencies Ogilvy and Grey compete for the same business, how does parent company WPP deal with the competitive dynamics internally? Replace these three names with any other parent-and-baby company combination and the fundamental question stays the same.

This question came up again in a different context – the world of smartphone marketing – when, few days back, the same inquisitive reporter met with Sumit Walia, the recently appointed product and marketing chief of Oppo. Owned by Guangzhou based BBK Electronics, Oppo is rivaled by siblings Vivo, realme and OnePlus, in India. Though all four brands from the Bu Bu Gao family fiercely compete with one another for market share and vie for the same consumers' precious attention, they operate as independent units. An average smartphone buyer may not even be aware of their shared lineage... many of my colleagues didn't.

Despite the overlap in target groups, each brand appears to be striving for more than just media muscle and visibility. In an effort to differentiate themselves from one another, smartphone brands are now looking for niches within the category. And this reflects the way people use their phones today – there are gamers, instagram addicts, webseries bingers, tech geeks... each type has unique needs. And that's the space we at afaqs!Reporter are keen to explore.

Earlier this year, when we put OnePlus' Vikas Agarwal on the cover, we learnt about the brand's quirky, experimental and elitist attitude towards advertising. Before that, Madhav Sheth of realme went on record with us saying he sees little merit in “fancy” marketing. By then Vivo had appointed Aamir Khan as endorser. Where does Oppo stand? How does Sumit split the marketing pie – and what sub-segment within the cluttered, hyper-competitive, clone-prone smartphone segment does he want his brand to own?

Ashwini Gangal, Executive Editor