The OnePlus One is a phone that I think about a lot. I remember back in the summer of 2014 when I purchased one from someone on Craigslist since I wasn’t one of the lucky people to get an invite to purchase the phone (what a weird system that was). I remember thinking how amazing it was to get that much phone for so little, surely this phone would change the way that phones would be priced forever. I was wrong. Phone prices have gone up since then and OnePlus has increased their prices every year to boot. It would seem that the company is going back to its roots with the launch of the OnePlus Nord, a phone that is more aggressive on price with almost flagship specifications.
While some are seeing this as a return to the days of the OnePlus One, the reality is that this is a further indication of the new OnePlus, a company that is more like the household names of the Android world than the upstart from 6 years ago. The OnePlus Nord shows something that OnePlus has never quite had before: smartphone category range. Previously, there was always just the OnePlus flagship of that year followed by the “T” upgrade; now they have the “mid-range” portion of the smartphone equation in their portfolio with Nord. This segmentation of the lineup shows us that OnePlus has evolved as a company and is no longer just an enthusiast brand, and that is okay.
What is an Enthusiast Brand?
To put it simply, smartphone enthusiasts can be described as a very vocal minority. If you’re reading this right now you might very well consider yourself a smartphone enthusiast; and in its infancy, OnePlus was very much so an enthusiast brand: they offered excellent specifications for prices that were very low, often undercutting the major players like Samsung and Apple by hundreds of dollars. This is exactly how the company has gained fans, enthusiasts that will evangelize the brand on social media to build up the hype for its upcoming releases.
This strategy cannot last forever. Operating at slim profit margins on your primary product can only be sustainable for so long; eventually, there needs to be a push into profitability. When a company decides to do this, however, there is the risk of alienating the enthusiast fan base that made the company relevant. OnePlus decided to make the switch from an enthusiast brand to a more layered approach a la Samsung and Apple with the 8 series of devices this year. The OnePlus Nord is further evidence of this, as it gives the company a dedicated offering at the $300–400 price tier in addition to competing at $700 with the OnePlus 8 and at $900 for the OnePlus 8 Pro. The company’s strategy in many ways has started to mirror that of Apple in 2020.
Apple of the East?
Consider Apple’s current portfolio of devices that have been released within the last year: the entry-level iPhone SE for $400, the mid-range iPhone 11 for $699, and the iPhone 11 Pro starting at $999. This is very similar to what OnePlus is trying to accomplish with the Nord, and how it is cementing itself as more than just a niche brand for people that watch tech YouTube videos in their spare time. Effectively, the OnePlus Nord is the company’s SE, their gateway drug into falling in love with OnePlus. The company’s focus on marketing this device in India also fits into this idea since OnePlus also manufactures TVs that are sold in India.
Much like Apple, OnePlus also has a growing portfolio of accessories designed for their phones such as first-party cases, charging solutions, backpacks, and headphones. In the years since the launch of their first phone, OnePlus has been cultivating a brand identity around its entire portfolio of products; so in that sense, it was never merely an enthusiast brand. Where Apple has built a fan base on the strength of aligned hardware and software with easy to use flourishes, OnePlus has cultivated a following with smart software enhancements to Android, a reputation for speedy performance, and premium design aesthetic in line with the current trends of the industry.
The disconnect comes during the evolutionary process of OnePluses growth, where the company was championed for an incredible price to hardware ratio but not for the identity that it was trying to cultivate. As a result, many people have associated OnePlus as a value brand when the company was never going to be that for an extended period. Where some saw the price increases of the OnePlus 8 series of phones to be a betrayal, the evolution of the company is becoming more and more clear as the Nord comes closer to release; the result is that OnePlus is now more Apple and Samsung than they are Redmi and Realme.
Diversifying the Portfolio
Many have viewed the OnePlus Nord as a return to form for OnePlus, a device that goes back to the days of OnePlus 3T, a device that will have a high level of performance at a price point usually reserved for mid-range devices like Samsung’s Galaxy A51; and while that isn’t a wrong assertion, it is missing the overall portfolio that the company is looking to achieve with the Nord.
By releasing a $300–400 device, in addition to also offering devices at $700 and $900, gives OnePlus something it’s never had: a wide range of products at various price points. The Nord allows OnePlus to compete with Samsung and Apple by offering phones that are priced directly at each of the offerings from the two giants of the smartphone hierarchy. The Nord is a device that OnePlus can place in the same space where the iPhone SE and Galaxy A51 dominate and offer a very competitive alternative to what people are used to seeing with a price tag of $400 or below. Similarly, this allows the 8 and 8 Pro to compete with iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro respectively without the usual “yeah but” that comes with buying a phone from OnePlus.
By expanding this product line with a sensibly priced phone, OnePlus sheds the moniker of being only for tech geeks. The Nord offers a device that is more accessible to the masses, once it reaches more markets. This shift has been evident from the way that OnePlus has focused its website on carrier promotions. Currently, a quick trip to OnePlus.com will prominently display a 50% off offer for Sprint customers. OnePlus has realized that they can no longer be the boutique brand that only sells unlocked devices in a world where most consumers get their devices from a carrier store; in that regard, OnePlus has become more of a traditional smartphone manufacturer instead of a niche enthusiast brand, and that is a reasonable right transition for the company to make.
It’s Okay to Change
Many OnePlus fans will not like the direction that the company has taken this year, by being more like Samsung than what they were in 2014. Many have used the terms “betrayal”, “identity crisis”, and “ridiculous” to describe this year of OnePlus phones. I would counter those words with one of my own: smart. The company has shed its reputation as a value leader and is ready to be taken seriously by the masses.
In a way, OnePlus has become the spiritual successor to the void created when HTC lost its place in the smartphone hierarchy. The companies are surprisingly similar: both have a reputation for excellent design, smart software tweaks, and performance that satisfies the power users among us. OnePlus has fashioned itself as the proper alternative to Apple and Samsung, and with the struggles of LG to find an identity that place is all but cemented.
To be considered in the league of these dominant companies, OnePlus has had to adapt and conform to be taken seriously by consumers to be viewed as the third option. Inherently, people tend to resist change, which is why they stay in homes and cities longer than they intend to. Too much change is overwhelming but a little change is welcome; this shift from OnePlus is reflective of that, as they have grown friendlier to carriers with devices at multiple price points but have brought the clean OnePlus experience to more potential fingertips.
I can’t help but go back to thinking about the OnePlus One again. What the company achieved with that phone was incredibly fascinating. Six years is an eternity in the smartphone world and OnePlus has changed a lot in that time. Long gone are the marketing gaffes and gimmicky invite systems: today’s OnePlus is a more focused company with larger attention to detail coupled with a more expansive product lineup that makes sense for almost all users. OnePlus no longer makes a phone only for enthusiasts, and the Android landscape is a better place as a result.
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