The hot mobile phone business in India just got even hotter. In the last year, smartphone sales have suddenly tripled and the cost of 3G has fallen sharply. And the story of India's mobile data revolution finally seems as if it's back on track.
The best thing about this story is that Indian companies are at the heart of this revolution: remixing global models to suit Indian preferences and beating the biggest global brands in the world at their own game. The latest numbers from IDC suggest that Micromax and Karbonn are winning ground over Samsung and Nokia. The phones from these young, new companies are purposely designed to look exactly like iPhones and Blackberrys but to cost half as much or less. By retaining only the most popular features of these phones and eliminating anything extra, emerging market companies are able to offer accessible-to-everyone hybrids and perhaps more interestingly, to be perceived as innovators rather than copycats.
It feels like another big battle between sophisticated multinational companies and street-smart Indian brands for the notoriously hard-to-impress Indian consumer. But this time, unlike the battles before in FMCG and consumer electronics, a new breed of Indian firms is emerging that is selling more than seductively low price points. By listening closely to demanding consumers, the company's fast and frugal engineers have designed products that offer global lifestyles in local contexts, at local value.
Nothing like Anything. That's Micromax's tagline and it's fittingly appropriate for a company that is challenging all the old rules and fast becoming one of India's favourite brands. It has defied Indian notions of how to grow a brand. Instead of relying on the usual big star formula ingrained in Indian marketing, it has developed a unique and confident personality that's unmistakably Micromax. It feels authentic to the company's innovative spirit and focuses on connecting to today's pop culture. When Micromax announced it was the title sponsor for the Sunburn Music Festival , it created a cult around its brand, buoying the cool factor of the 'Made in India' label.
The biggest advantage that homegrown brands have over multinationals is their freedom to be intuitive in their marketing style and quicker on the ground. Global marketing diktats restrict Samsung or Nokia from something as crazy as the infamous 'Karbonn Kamal Katch'. But the clever company from Bangalore was quick to spot and grab the opportunity to build its brand through the IPL, become a nationally recognised brand in a matter of months and part of the language and culture of the IPL forever.
Cheaper phones will win in the short term. But building cultural connections is the only chance at beating multinationals in the long run. The most successful Indian businesses will use their instincts to create brands that connect deeply with Indian consumers, in a way that only they can and that multinational brands could never. If Micromax or Karbonn (or iBall or Lava or any of the others) can beat Samsung at getting local language interfaces for their smartphones and phablets, they will win big.
Pradeep Jain, Managing Director at Karbonn probably explains it best when he says: It's not about doing different things, but about doing things differently."
Is this is a new era for global brands? Where innovation cues increasingly come from emerging market consumers and marketing is more tactical rather than purely strategic. We're already starting to see that global brands have been forced to be more competitive. Whether it's the 5C from Apple or the series of new phones at every price point from Samsung. The emerging markets are too irresistible.