Abid Hussain Barlaskar

Why did OnePlus create ‘affordable’ sub-brand Nord?

We spoke with Siddhant Narayan, head of marketing - India, OnePlus, about the company’s latest move and what went into creating the new identity Nord.

Mid-range flagship, affordable flagship, premium all-rounder – 2020 has witnessed the emergence of such terminology in the smartphone market. These terms refer to a new segment of pocket friendly do-all smartphones that has seen several big ticket entries in the last few months.

Among the buzziest of the lot is OnePlus’ Nord, which shares the space with iPhone SE (2020), Google’s Pixel 4a, OPPO’s new Reno phones (around the Rs 30,000 price point), among others.

A flagship phone is the newest, (most) upgraded and also the priciest model in a brand’s portfolio. On the other hand, a mid-range phone usually sits a few notches below the flagship in terms of features, design, price, etc. While flagships are priced upwards of Rs 45,000-Rs 50,000, mid-range models start at around Rs 20,000-Rs 25,000.

This breakdown of terminology brings us back to the question: How can these two opposing terms be put together? And, what went into creating this new segment?

A closer look reveals that these newly launched devices retain some of the most visible and talked about features of their native flagships. For example, Nord has retained OnePlus 8’s camera, iPhone SE has iPhone11’s processor, OPPO’s Reno 4 Pro has a curved glass like the flagship Find X, and Pixel 4a has the most talked about Pixel camera and premium Pixel-only features.

Also, these devices should not be mistaken for the ‘lite’ versions of flagships. Instead, these have been launched separately as ‘all-rounders’ with independent identities and packed with the best features available at a certain price point.

Here’s a look at the punchlines for the new models. OnePlus describes Nord as, ‘Pretty much everything you could ask for.’ Google’s Pixel 4a goes, ‘It’s not rocket science but it’s an amazing deal.’ And, Apple says, ‘Lots to love. Less to spend’, for its iPhone SE.

To add a ‘flagship’ touch, many of these devices are 5G-capable, have big storage capacities and flaunt high screen refresh rates, a rather buzzy premium feature. They, however, cut down on other aspects like processors.

OnePlus’ creation of the new ‘affordable’ Nord identity was arguably the buzziest marketing and product launch spectacle of the COVID era. We caught up with Siddhant Narayan, head of marketing - India, OnePlus, to further explore the brand’s move and what went into creating Nord.

Siddhant Narayan
Siddhant Narayan

Narayan joined OnePlus in December last year from the Swedish watch brand Daniel Wellington. Before that, he had worked with Jio and Nike, handling various marketing functions. At OnePlus, he is tasked with building brand salience with Indian consumers.

Nord’s launch comprised several firsts. The brand took an Instagram-first route, creating a new account and using it as the main source for news around the launch.

“Through quirky content, like memes, shorts videos and a documentary, we channeled a lot of the engagement, which resulted in one million followers in three weeks. This was in line with the OnePlus launch strategy of creating desire and demand for the brand,” Narayan says.

Once the curiosity peaked, the brand released videos of how Nord was created. The video series called ‘New Beginnings’ captured the ‘to and fro’ of ideas within the global OnePlus teams. Right from initial conversations on what the phone should have, to the marketing strategy.

“We wanted to show our users the honest truth of how much care and consideration goes into creating a smartphone. This was an honest effort to create a feeling of belongingness with our users,” said Narayan.

Next, on July 21, OnePlus conducted the launch entirely on AR (augmented reality). The brand also designed a special invitation, giving users a virtual hands-on experience of Nord. The new model received over four million sale alert requests on Amazon before actually going on sale.

The execution and results are understandable, especially coming from a buzzy brand like OnePlus. But what isn’t clear about the move is the ‘why’, since OnePlus wants to project itself as a premium brand targeting folks who want it and are ready to dole out cash.

Narayan reveals that it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to a sudden change in market dynamics, or consumer behavior.

“The decision to launch a more accessible product is... something we’ve been considering for a long time."

“The decision to launch a more accessible product is in line with OnePlus’s global strategy – and something we’ve been considering for a long time. While we are adapting our business strategy for more sustainable growth, our focus on creating best-in-class experiences remains the same.”

Also, this six-year-old company, which has been building its equity in the premium space, couldn’t hold back from going at the rapidly growing mid-range space (in the smartphone market of 400 million units).

“As a growing company, we are consistently exploring opportunities to fuel our growth, and meet the needs of more users worldwide by strategically diversifying into new product categories and price points. But, at the same time, not compromising on our OnePlus promise,” says Narayan.

But it wasn’t without risk. “As we built so much brand equity in the OnePlus brand over the past few years, we can’t risk the trust consumers have in us just because we have a lower price point,” says OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei, in one of the documentaries.

While OnePlus usually takes nine to 12 months to come up with a new product, Jane Feng, project manager of the OnePlus Nord project, mentioned that Nord’s launch had to be executed in six months. The team spent time on strategy, research and ideation to ensure that Nord fit in with the overall business strategy, while retaining OnePlus’ ethos.

However, OnePlus’ ambition to stand alongside leading fellow smartphone brands like Vivo, OPPO, Xiaomi and Samsung is apparent. With this entry into the mid-range smartphone segment, OnePlus has also put in motion plans to expand its portfolio and its user base via new product lines and a wider range of price points. Nord, for now, has only been launched in India and Europe.

Along with the 8GB/128GB (Rs 27,999) and 12GB/256GB (Rs 29,999) variants, the brand has introduced an ‘India only’ 6GB/64GB variant at Rs 24,999.

"At this starting price, we believe that Indian consumers, who want to enter the OnePlus ecosystem, can do so..."

“At this starting price, we believe that Indian consumers, who want to enter the OnePlus ecosystem, can do so with the OnePlus Nord,” Narayan mentions.

Experts suggest that getting more consumers to experience and sample OnePlus at the lower price point will significantly expand the brand’s user community. It could also eventually drive movement in its flagship segment.

OnePlus, in general, had limited itself to Tier-I markets, targeting a small base of people “with purchasing power and a bias towards buying expensive products.” Nord has brought about a radical change by focusing on consumers seeking a premium experience at affordable price points.

"Nord is targeted towards OnePlus enthusiasts and value shoppers, who are not as focused on specs..."

“With OnePlus Nord, we are looking to tap into a whole new customer segment of value conscious shoppers, especially in Tier-I and Tier-II markets… Nord is targeted towards OnePlus enthusiasts and value shoppers, who are not as focused on specs, but rather, on a smartphone that fulfils their essential daily needs,” Narayan explains.

However, creating an offshoot identity is a first for the brand. We asked Narayan about the recalibration of marketing between selling ‘flagship’ and ‘affordable’.

He says that apart from the different positioning strategies, both Nord and the flagship have a different consumer set.

The flagship OnePlus 8 series 5G is targeted towards the premium and ultra-premium smartphone market. In Narayan’s terms, unlike Nord’s TG, the users who purchase the pricey devices are looking for the best of technology that is smooth, powerful and can keep up with their ‘hypertasking’.

In terms of marketing Narayan says, “Both product lines have a different approach. With the Nord, the tonality is slightly more young, fresh and edgier. It continues to extend the brand’s authenticity and honesty…”

“Keeping in mind the Gen Z target audience for Nord and also the need for the product to have its own identity that is differentiated from the brand's flagship devices, we introduced a new visual identity. We infused elements of it across different touch points, including packaging, website, advertising, and social media content.”

Apart from the heavy marketing, Nord, as a product, does try to fill most of the smartphone need gaps – features, user experience and price. There has been quite a bit of effort to keep it out of the shadow of the flagships and give it an independent identity. We asked Narayan if there is a risk of Nord eating out of the OnePlus ‘flagship’ sales.

He says that the Indian smartphone market is vast and diverse, with consumers having varying needs and focus areas across price points.

“We believe the audiences for OnePlus flagship products and the OnePlus Nord product line are different."

“We believe the audiences for OnePlus flagship products and the OnePlus Nord product line are different. Nord is aimed at sharing the OnePlus experience at an affordable and accessible price point. Hence, the device caters to the essential smartphone needs (great camera, smooth experience and better battery) in the mid-range segment.”

“OnePlus 8 series caters to the premium and ultra-premium smartphone market, wherein users are looking for the most powerful device packed with the best technology. The OnePlus 8 series is meant for the ‘hypertaskers’, those who need the power that the 8 series provides.”

It’s not just affordable smartphones. OnePlus is also eyeing the mass smart TV market in India, with its new affordable offerings. The market is dominated by Xiaomi. A Counterpoint report suggests that India's smart TV segment was the fastest-growing in 2019, up by 25 per cent Y-o-Y.

“Despite being one of the largest markets in the world, the smart TV market in India continues to be under-penetrated. This makes it a more attractive growth market for the entire TV and content value chain. Fueled by the increasing popularity of online streaming platforms and growing Internet connectivity, the smart TV market will continue to see further growth in India.”

“This growth will be led by the budget segment as a majority of Indians are likely to consider less costly smart TVs before making any high-end purchase decisions. Our new affordable range of TVs – the Y and U series – is in line with our vision to build a premium yet accessible connected ecosystem...,” Narayan signs off.