Abid Hussain Barlaskar
Profile

“Manu Kumar Jain taught me to be limitless”: ex-Xiaomi CMO Anuj Sharma, now POCO India chief

The new country director for POCO India shares his experiences of working on India’s No. 1 smartphone brand and his new role of leading a juvenile offshoot.

As an outsider and as a top executive of another phone brand, Anuj Sharma (the former head of marketing at Xiaomi) found it hard to digest the sales numbers of Xiaomi’s smartphones. In a candid chat with afaqs!, Sharma reveals that this feeling of disbelief lingered for a few months even after joining Xiaomi (in September 2018).

“I had been in the phone industry for some time, and didn’t believe that Xiaomi was selling those many phones. From the outside, it was just unbelievable. I kept questioning the teams, even when I was two months in. We launched (the model) Note 6 Pro (in November 2018) and after it went on sale, the team came with the numbers that said 600,000 units were sold.”

Sharma wouldn’t let the teams initiate PR activity for the sale of Note 6 Pro before personally vetting the numbers. “Everyone was quite angry with me, and Manu (Kumar Jain, global VP, Xiaomi, and MD, Xiaomi India) was like, ‘Why aren’t you communicating?’ I said, ‘I’m waiting for proof.’ I asked for proof from Flipkart, Mi.com, etc. 600,000 people buying the same phone at the same time was just unbelievable. I can understand if people question Xiaomi’s sales, even today.”

“I did not believe that Xiaomi was selling those many phones.”

For Sharma, marketing at Xiaomi was “the easiest job” as the ‘products did all the talking’. ‘Easiest’, despite having the leanest marketing budget among major smartphone brands. “Xiaomi wasn’t really a big spender when it comes to marketing. That teaches you a lot more ways to get the word out. Manu had already set the standard long before I joined.”

“I didn’t really get a shock that way, but most of Xiaomi’s (smartphone) competitors were spending 10 times more in ATL advertising. And then, there is something that I learnt from Manu – we don’t have limits. Whenever he was planning, it would be boundless. It is one of the reasons why the brand went on to become No. 1, from being a nobody, in just three years.”

(L-R) Anuj Sharma and Manu Kumar Jain, September 2018.
(L-R) Anuj Sharma and Manu Kumar Jain, September 2018.

One other thing that Sharma found out of place with Xiaomi was the absence of Chinese executives in its Indian offices. “Most other brands have their country origin folks heading key positions. It was pretty interesting from the viewpoint of an outsider, who had just entered the company. I expected a Chinese team.”

When asked about a memorable cost-effective, but high ROI, initiative, Sharma responds saying, “That’s pretty much everything.” He shares a recent example of the ‘rap video’ launch of Redmi Earbuds S, marking Redmi’s entry into the audio category.

“Although it was an experiential product, we could not do events due to the COVID pandemic. We launched it online with a rap video made by Xiaomi employees. We sold 250,000 units in a month. The entire expenditure was for employees recording themselves in their homes. We did get a good video editor, but that’s it.”

This ‘low cost, high ROI’ Xiaomi marketing style is one of the things that Sharma will try out on his latest assignment at POCO, a former Xiaomi sub-brand. He joined POCO India as its country director a week back.

The new POCO boss describes himself as a ‘tech enthusiast’, and has spent over a decade in the business of selling smartphones. He has had stints with organisations like Razer, Motorola and Lenovo Smartphones.

“If I can not spend too much money on marketing that’ll be great”

“It is early to say what the communication strategy for POCO will be, but it’ll be great if I can not spend too much money. I would love to reduce expenditure, and pass on that benefit to the consumers.”

POCO has had an interesting journey. What started as a limited Xiaomi series (in August 2018), became a sub-brand. The first model in the brand’s line POCO F1 was launched as ‘POCO F1 by Xiaomi’ (at Rs 20,999). The series didn’t see any addition in 2019, and the next POCO phone was launched in July this year.

Xiaomi clocked Rs 200 crore in revenues within five minutes of the sale going live on Flipkart, and 700,000 units of POCO F1 were sold within three months of its launch. Like Xiaomi, POCO’s sales are also driven by its extremely competitive price to specifications ratio. The Rs 20,999 phone had built in liquid cooling, a feature associated with high end phones even today.

POCO F1
POCO F1

As per research firm IDC, POCO F1 was the top smartphone in the online market of over Rs 15,000 in Q4 2018, beating its key competitor OnePlus 6. The brand’s Twitter profile currently has 216,800 followers. In comparison, realme, a top brand with a much wider portfolio and more marketing, has 394,900 Twitter followers.

POCO survived in the public memory basis a single model, and has launched only four models so far (three new models in 2020, only two for India - M2 Pro and X2). In January this year, Jain announced that POCO will operate independently with its own brand identity.

POCO M2 Pro
POCO M2 Pro

Xiaomi teams spent most of 2019 figuring out POCO’s future. “Although we did not create any products that year, the POCO legacy and the community kept getting stronger. Keeping POCO within the Xiaomi fold was probably limiting it. Towards the end of 2019, we took a call to let POCO do its independent thing,” Sharma says.

The brand is gradually expanding its global footprint. The business till now was being managed by POCO’s general manager C Manmohan. The new country director role has been created to propel the brand further.

“The POCO global team asked me if I’d be okay with the role and I said, ‘why not?’. Over all, it’s a business role, which includes marketing. There are parts that I love, like, doing the entire product portfolio, managing the products, dealing with partners, and then the finance, P&L parts, which will be entirely new. I have some experience there, but not exactly of running a business for the whole country,” Sharma adds.

From a personal standpoint, he mentions that the role aligns with the ‘tech enthusiast’ in him. “I don’t feel out place, since this is exactly how I would want a company to act.”

The focus TG for POCO are “tech enthusiasts”, the kind of audience who’re at a slightly advanced stage in the smartphone journey and are very specific about their demands.

“People confuse tech enthusiasts for ones who buy expensive tech.”

“People confuse tech enthusiasts with ones who buy high-end expensive tech. We don’t want to make that mistake. We’re looking at the mindset, but not the purse. There are tech enthusiasts at multiple price points. It is wrong to say that a consumer who can’t shell out Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 isn’t a tech enthusiast. From a communications perspective also, you don’t really have to simplify it to the lowest common denominator. We believe that in India, there is a large section of consumers who know their tech.”

“We are looking at the tech enthusiast mindset but not the purse.”

However, this isn’t the first time we’re seeing a brand offshoot to grow independently. OnePlus grew out of OPPO. We asked Sharma about the strategy behind such a move, versus simply creating TG-specific products within the mother brand.

“Independent brands allow focus on niche consumer segments.”

He says that the advantage for such a move is focus. “If OnePlus continued in the OPPO fold, it would continue to be just another product range. You can go a lot deeper with a focused approach. You’d be catering to a niche segment versus the entire market, but you’d be able to build a good rapport with that niche segment, which might turn out great. Brands like Xiaomi, Samsung, or even Apple have become so huge that they can’t focus on specific target audiences.”

“Also, enthusiasts provide very specific feedback. Rarely would they say something like, ‘I wish it was a red coloured phone’. Instead, they will ask for specific aspects, like optimisation of performance, battery, etc.”

At Xiaomi, Sharma was handling marketing for an ever expanding portfolio of products, much beyond just selling phones. Xiaomi is a market leader in the Indian smart TV business. It also sells shoes, air purifiers, beard trimmers and even LED bulbs.

“One of the reasons why I loved walking into the Xiaomi office everyday was because you never knew what new toy you would get to play with. The last two years gave me a lot of exposure on the TV side and from a smart home perspective. I will miss all of those things a little, but I think the new challenge is a fair bargain.”

Recently, Sharma was faced with what’s probably been the most difficult phase for the brand in India – a double whammy of the COVID crisis and the anti-China sentiment following the border clashes with China.

Of the two, Sharma says that a bigger concern was the impact of COVID. “At that point, we had around 2,800 Mi-branded stores, and the livelihoods of our partners were at stake. The COVID situation was the most nerve-racking, it hasn’t been a pleasant experience even for the ones who have recovered. The sentiment issue was a little less worrying as it had come out on previous occasions too. We reassured consumers that our products were ‘Made in India’, and were more Indian than many others.”

The POCO India team (which can fit in a relatively small conference room) is busy setting goals for the brand. The focus, at the moment, is entirely on the upcoming festive/holiday season. Sharma has had meetings with his only retail channel Flipkart.

"Flipkart as a distribution partner that provides instant access to tens of thousands of pin codes."

Speaking on the e-commerce-only retail strategy, Sharma says that to be able to manage retail, it’s important to have a large enough team and resources. “Right now we don’t have the capability of doing that. Flipkart as a distribution partner that provides instant access to tens of thousands of pin codes... That really helps. We can, instead, focus on the consumers, our products, the communication…,” Sharma signs off with the hopes of reconnecting with us at a later time, when POCO has built a place for itself in the highly competitive Indian smartphone market.