Micromax and the “It’s not Yu, it’s Mi” approach!

What's all that noise about Cheeni Kum anyway?

After a sabbatical of sorts, Micromax is making its comeback in the smartphone market via a new sub brand called In. Mind you, unless you knew the brand, you might wonder whether it was actually making a comeback in the smartphone market or heading a Swadeshi movement or even selling tea.

For, in its latest avatar, Micromax, the brand that had once tried to appear as India’s international brand (it had Hugh Jackman as its brand ambassador, and his poster in its headquarters), is now taking on the mantle of the Great Indian Phone Brand That Will Drive Away The Chinese. It is a tag that Nehru would have approved of in 1962, but the big question is just how much of a chord will it strike with those who really matter in 2020 – the Indian consumer.

All anti-Chinese talk and no product chatter makes Micromax…a slightly odd player

And as of now, Micromax has not really given the Indian consumer anything to look at apart from a series of messages that revolve around how the Chinese need to be beaten back. There has been no talk of its own product whatsoever – my mother actually thought the brand was diversifying into tea when she saw the launch invite, which showed a cup of tea with the words “Cheeni Kum” (literally “lesser sugar,” but a statement which can also be interpreted as “less Chinese” as Cheeni in Hindi also means Chinese).

On paper, nationalism is a perfectly legitimate marketing tool. There is something known as local advantage and Micromax is perfectly within its rights to make the most of it. After all, there is nothing wrong with the consumer getting another option, even if it is in the already packed smartphone market.

There is just one problem: there so far has been no talk of the option the Indian consumer will be getting. Apart from the fact that it will not be Chinese.

Yes, that is right. We have no idea whatsoever of the product that Micromax intends to launch in the coming days. There have been a few “leaks” but we actually do not have any official idea of what Micromax is going to bring to the market. And that is going to be the most crucial part of the brand’s comeback, for notwithstanding all the talk of the “anti-China sentiment,” the fact is that the Indian consumer has so far shown every sign of being a very discerning and careful one. In fact, if recent market reports are any indication, the sales of Chinese phone brands have not dipped significantly, if at all. It will clearly take more than clever sloganeering to rock the Chinese brand boat.

The maker of the Indian mid-segment!

The fact that Micromax is relying on this approach is a little odd for the brand has actually been a past master of delivering staggering value for money devices. In what is perhaps a twist of fate irony worthy of a Bollywood film, the Indian brand was actually well-known for coming up with well-specced and reasonably well performing devices at surprisingly affordable prices, which were often (ahem!) imported from the very nation it has trained its marketing guns on – China. And while in an emotional speech delivered on the return of the brand, co-founder Rahul Sharma claimed that Micromax had been driven out of the Indian market by Chinese brands, sources in the industry are quick to point out that some (in fact, many, as per some pundits) of Micromax’s own products at that time were actually from China.

The interesting part is that even though many were accusing it of merely rebranding imported products, Micromax’s own market share did not seem affected by it. Indeed, at its peak, the Indian brand was outselling legendary international brands like Nokia, Motorola and Samsung. And therein lies the key to its success – products that delivered excellent value for the money they charged. Micromax’s original consumers were not bothered by whether the phone they were buying was a rebranded one or its country of origin – what they wanted (like most consumers do) was good performance and decent design at an affordable price. It is unlikely that they would have changed their minds in the years of its absence – the success of the likes of Xiaomi and Realme testifies to the fact that the “great specs at great price” formula still works.

Sell phones, cellphones… is China a sales factor?

So I must confess to being totally surprised at Micromax’s current strategy. This is a brand that literally invented the value for money mid-segment and made Indian consumers realise that you did not have to pay a bomb for a decently specced phone. A brand that was not afraid of taking the competition head on, without resorting to nationalistic slogans – it even poked fun at Apple’s iconic iPhone. It even came out with a new brand to take on the likes of Xiaomi and OnePlus – remember Yu?

And succeeded while doing so. Indeed at one time, it was one of the world’s top ten smartphone brands.

Why then does the brand need to go into China-bashing overdrive on its comeback? I frankly have no real idea. In fact, no matter how you look at it, it is well-nigh impossible to have a totally Indian phone, as components come from various parts of the world these days. In fact, almost every phone is more of a global phone right now, with parts coming from all over the world – even the mighty iPhone is not totally made of US parts! So anyone waving the nationalistic flag can be accused of mild doublespeak. Of course, Micromax needs to beat the Chinese brands if it has to make its comeback successful. But more importantly, it has to sell phones. And right now, its focus seems to be more on stopping Chinese phones than selling its own. Will that work? We will know in the coming days.

Micromax In series phones prices, specs, launch timeline tipped
The “It’s not Yu, it’s Mi” line of attack – the pun makes sense given the fact that Yu was a Micromax brand and Mi is its current (Xiaomi) rival – might get Micromax headlines, but then success in the market is not measured by media coverage, is it? It is one thing to oppose China, quite another to provide viable alternatives. And that is the challenge Micromax faces in its latest coming.