Samsung’s smartphone problems in India

Why is it that most CEOs at Indian companies are likely to be using an iPhone, and not a Samsung phone or any other Android device?


According to a Kantar IMRB survey of 100 CXOs showed the iPhone was the preferred phone although Samsung came a close second. Photo: Bloomberg
According to a Kantar IMRB survey of 100 CXOs showed the iPhone was the preferred phone although Samsung came a close second. Photo: Bloomberg

Samsung Electronics Co. has a 33% share of India’s smartphone market and Apple Inc. around 8%, according to CyberMedia Research, but the Korean company has reason to feel inferior: most occupants of the corner office at Indian companies are likely to be using an iPhone.

A few, especially those in the media business, may carry a second Android phone that could sometimes be a Samsung, but Apple has a stranglehold over corner-office occupants. Indeed, many CEOs who carry laptops prefer the MacBook Air.

Not just CEOs, but most CXOs that is any top executive that has “chief” in their title—this could be the chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief information officer or a chief technology officer, prefer iPhones.

According to a Kantar IMRB survey of 100 CXOs showed the iPhone was the preferred phone although Samsung came a close second.

So, why do CXOs, and CEOs in particular, prefer the iPhone?

For one, it immediately signals top-of-the-line (much like a Mercedes still does in India). Samsung has smartphones to suit every budget, and doesn’t immediately signal premiumness. But let’s assume our CEOs are beyond such snobbery.

Samsung’s advertising for its phones revolves around communicating superior features: a better camera, longer battery life, or sheer durability. Apple focuses on what you can do with the phone. Indeed, in recent years, its only advertising for its phones (apart from product ads in newspapers) has taken the form of billboards showing photographs taken by people using an iPhone.

Then there’s the legacy of the Apple brand—from the days of the Macintosh, Apple’s users have tended to be cultish, buying a really good and easy-to-use offering, but often doing so for not just functional but also emotional reasons. Apple products reflect a personality type.

Or at least, that’s the message Apple has managed to communicate. We know it isn’t true because of the numbers—78.29 million iPhones were sold in the December quarter of 2016.

Even the neighbourhood real estate broker has a rose-gold iPhone (and drives a black Audi A6)—but Apple has managed to convince legions of buyers that it reflects a certain creative coolness (bordering on the arrogant, some would say). iPhones are also durable—my go-to phone troubleshooter in Mumbai, Altaf, says he still knows people using an iPhone 4; it’s difficult to find someone using a Samsung phone that is of similar vintage, he adds.

iPhones are simple to use, but it is unlikely such factors as durability and ease of use will weigh on CEOs. What could is the ease of decision making: if you have an iPhone 6, you move to an iPhone 7; there are no other offerings from the same handset maker to complicate the decision.

As one myself, I also believe iPhone users are more loyal to the brand, but that could just be my own bias.

So, what should Samsung do?

Maybe it can take a leaf from International Business Machines Corp. (IBM), says advertising industry veteran K.V. Sridhar. In the 1990s, IBM’s ThinkPad was launched as a sort of non-Mac—a powerful computer that managers could proudly flaunt in front of the creative teams that preferred the Macs.

Sure, IBM eventually sold its personal computing business to Lenovo Group Ltd, and Apple upped the game (and how) with MacBooks and MacBook Airs, but the gambit worked, if only temporarily.

We know that brands—what we buy, wear and associate ourselves with—says something about us. And, in reverse, a brand’s users sometimes say something about the brand.

The fact that most chief executives carry a certain brand makes it the ‘IT’ brand for anyone vying for the corner office or wanting to make a statement.

Shop Talk will take a weekly look at consumer trends, behaviour and insights.

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