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Chinese smartphone brand OnePlus is rediscovering China amid the pandemic

OnePlus made a name for itself in the West for its high performance at lower prices, but it now wants to win over its home country.

Photo by Kerttu Jaatinen on Unsplash. Photo by Kerttu Jaatinen on Unsplash.

While it’s not as nearly as big of a brand as Apple or Samsung, OnePlus has still managed to inspire some fans to line up for hours just to be one of the first to get its latest phones. But back home in China, the OnePlus brand is a lot less well-known.

OnePlus now wants to change this in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has dampened smartphone demand and damaged global shipping.

The day after the international launch of its newest 5G-enabled OnePlus 8 series phones, company CEO Pete Lau did something uncharacteristic for the low-profile executive. After holding the China OnePlus 8 event on Thursday, Lau sat down for a livestreamed interview and sold more than 2,800 devices.

“We will try our best in marketing this year to be recognized, to help people understand OnePlus,” Lau told local media after the two-hour stream.

For most of its short history, OnePlus didn’t concentrate much on its home country, even though it’s the largest smartphone market in the world. But now the spread of the deadly coronavirus is expected to force OnePlus sales to plummet overseas, where it’s had the most success, said Counterpoint analyst Mengmeng Zhang.

Becoming a big smartphone brand in China, however, is more difficult than ever. Competition is tough, and brands sometimes go to great lengths to sell their wares. Executives occasionally throw shade at rivals or even directly disparage brands as “sellouts,” as in the case of the flamboyant Smartisan founder Luo Yonghao.

OnePlus, on the other hand, has been known to be more low-key, staying far away from the smartphone-related scuffles.

OnePlus also still can’t compare with industry heavyweights, even as it’s gained recognition in some overseas markets. The brand’s market share in the US jumped 200% in the last quarter of 2019, but it’s still not among the top five. In India, though, it was the most popular premium phone brand for the year.

But in China, OnePlus has to compete with other companies making high-end phones without much brand recognition. And the company often doesn’t have a price advantage. The company is competing with the likes of Apple, Huawei, Oppo, and Vivo, Zhang said. The latter two are sister brands of OnePlus, with all three owned by the Dongguan-based company BBK Electronics, which also owns RealMe.

Read this: Chinese smartphone vendors brace for 30 to 50% decline as a result of coronavirus

Another challenge for OnePlus is that it doesn’t have physical stores around the country, unlike its rivals. This was a key part of how Oppo and Vivo rapidly grew in China. And the feature set of OnePlus phones, which have been climbing in price, might not resonate with everyone in a country known to have many options for good-quality handsets at low prices.

“OnePlus’s features appeal more to tech-savvy users, which restricts its overall customer base,” Zhang explained.

This might be why OnePlus has made its prices cheaper in China than in North America, to the disappointment of some of its customers. While OnePlus phones have always been cheaper in China, the price differences are even starker this year.

The new OnePlus 8 series is priced between USD 699 and USD 999 in the US, a notable price hike for a brand that used to be known for its affordable phones. Prices in China range from about USD 565 to USD 850. That means the company’s top-tier device, the OnePlus 8 Pro with 256GB of storage and 12GB of RAM, costs Americans a whopping USD 150 more for the same device.

OnePlus has also spent a lot of time boosting brand awareness overseas. It’s finally been making some significant progress in the US by striking deals with local carriers, which is how most phones are sold in the country. After T-Mobile and Sprint, the company struck a deal with Verizon to sell the OnePlus 8 this month, marking the first time that the carrier has directly offered OnePlus devices.

This article first appeared in Abacus News.