The newest OnePlus phones are here. An annual release that gets some fanfare but not quite as much as a Galaxy Unpacked or an iPhone reveal event. Despite that, a new OnePlus being announced is always an important release in the smartphone calendar. As it has done for the last couple of years, the Chinese smartphone manufacturer is continuing with a two phone strategy with the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro.
And as has become the norm for the company in recent years, the focus has been camera performance. The reason that they have been doing this is the company’s continued reputation for having a “bad camera”. During the launch event, OnePlus took half an hour to talk about their new partnership with Hasselblad and how the company has put together an incredible camera experience. OnePlus has always been a company that focused on the performance of its phones, so its camera performance focus is telling. But more importantly, the way that the company has positioned itself behind branding and a change in priorities indicates that this isn’t the same old OnePlus.
The OnePlus Bad Camera Narrative
The origination of the OnePlus brand was centered around being a disruptor. Being the smartphone manufacturer that was different than Apple and Samsung, the company that was made for enthusiasts. Anyone that has been around the smartphone business for a while knows that enthusiasts are a very slim portion of the market that will never move the needle in terms of market share.
When you build a phone for enthusiasts, generally speaking, design aesthetics and camera performance come second to raw horsepower and performance to price ratio. And this was the OnePlus story for the first few generations of the company’s lineup. The OnePlus One and OnePlus Two were devices that prioritized having the latest and greatest Snapdragon processor of the time for a price that was lower than the competition.
While these devices were heralded for being an excellent value, there was always a caveat when it came to a conversation about OnePlus and its phones. That caveat was always centered around camera performance and how the company simply could not compete with the likes of Apple, Google, and Samsung. This changed in 2017 when the company teamed up with DxO to improve the camera experience on OnePlus phones.
Since then, the company has actively worked to improve the camera quality of its phones. OnePlus correctly identified that to gain notoriety in the modern smartphone world, the camera experience needs to be a point of focus. And to the company’s credit, it has improved the camera experience drastically over its early releases. Additions of Pro Mode, support for various shooting modes, and adding a versatile array of lenses have all been successful additions on OnePlus camera systems.
Yet despite these improvements in recent years, the commentary on OnePlus cameras has remained the same. Inevitably, every review of an OnePlus camera results in the same conclusion: it is better than the previous generation but leagues behind the latest iPhone, Pixel, and Galaxy. This year was supposed to be different, however. OnePlus has forged a partnership with reputable camera company Hasselblad to craft a game-changing camera experience. And the company’s choice of this particular partnership seems to be rooted in advancement but also as a way to appeal to a Western audience to change this pesky narrative.
The Psychology of the Hasselblad Partnership
OnePlus is no stranger to partnering with companies to boost its profile, as is evidenced from its previous partnership with DxO. This partnership with Hasselblad feels more substantial than that, however. During its keynote, OnePlus laid out the expectations of this union. This year Hasselblad would contribute to the color science of the photos and videos taken with these cameras, and then in later years, the two would partner on specific camera hardware. In short, Hasselblad would contribute to the look of the images first and then put its stamp on hardware later.
Why is OnePlus doing this partnership and why now? It is no secret that OnePlus is trying to make inroads in Western markets. Much of their marketing efforts have been around reaching consumers in North America and Europe, while its sister companies Oppo and Vivo have stayed away from North America altogether. We have seen with the expansion of the Nord lineup in the West that OnePlus is serious about carving out a place in this market.
The way that the company must do this is to build trust and brand equity with potential users of their phones. This partnership with Hasselblad feels like a service to this idea. Hasselblad is known as the company that helped to photograph the first moon landing in 1969. This history is dripping in Americana and OnePlus has smartly decided to leverage that as a partnership to establish its reputation among American consumers.
What this partnership does beyond the improvement of image quality from OnePlus cameras is that it creates a brand in the eyes of American consumers. When they see the Hasselblad branding on the camera sensor that they can think of the history behind that name and associate it with OnePlus. Whether this partnership actually works or not is of course yet to be seen, but the idea in place is all about creating a household name out of a brand that has been associated with enthusiasts and phone geeks exclusively until now.
A Change of Focus
In the past, when OnePlus announced a new phone there would be one thing that was emphasized more than anything else: speed. The company would often talk about how fast the performance was on its phones versus other Android competitors. They would also talk up charging speeds and the higher refresh rates on its displays.
This year, however, there was no real mention of device performance or enhanced software speed as it was in years past.
This year OnePlus leaned into the camera prowess of their phones and started to position itself as a lifestyle brand. Where in previous years the company talked up a smooth interface and the capability of its Oxygen OS as a powerful software solution, this year that was not part of the conversation at all. Instead, the company focused on how its phones can best capture day to day life.
This strategy of this positioning is not new. Apple and Samsung have profited off of this sort of presentation for years. In a sense, it feels that OnePlus is simply following the formula, a blueprint that has been laid out to them by the leaders in the market. OnePlus has slowly been transforming into a lifestyle brand for years and this current iteration of its phones and accessories seems to have finally realized that vision.
It is a new day for OnePlus. With the failings of brands like HTC and LG, there has become an opening for the third spot in the United States phone market. OnePlus focusing on cameras and trying to appeal to the sensibilities of the American consumer show that the company is very focused on this currently. As for the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro, these are excellent devices from a company that has continued to improve on a year-by-year basis.
These phones present an intriguing alternative to the iPhone and multiple Galaxy devices. Devices that tell a story of capable cameras, slick software, and well-made hardware. This release gives American consumers a trio of options that offer excellent well-rounded experiences to choose from. We need a competent third player in smartphones to continue to drive innovation, and it is becoming more apparent that OnePlus sees itself as that company.