Katie Ewer
Sep 16, 2014

Asian Champions of Design: Xiaomi

If you think the Chinese smartphone brand is all about aping Apple, think again.

Asian Champions of Design: Xiaomi

Xiaomi is the home-grown Chinese brand that knocked Samsung off its post this year to become China’s top-selling smart phone. It now has a market share in China of 14 per cent. Last year, it held only 5 per cent. That’s a pretty stratospheric rise by anyone’s standards.

Xiaomi sells smartphones for less than $200, versus more than $500 for a comparable Samsung product. The brand has gained penetration quickly through its low price, high functionality model. It’s bright, it’s friendly, and it’s accessible in every sense of the word.

The brand has an endearing name: ‘xiao’ means ‘little’ in Chinese while ‘mi’ is an acronym for ‘mobile internet’. The original Mandarin, 小米科技, means ‘little rice tech company’ (such endearing modesty for a giant-slayer!). The company’s brand mascot, the mi bunny, has a furry Russian hat and Young Pioneers red scarf that blends cuteness with communism. A cheery visual identity and range of user-friendly devices mean this brand has more charisma than Samsung, Nokia, Sony and Blackberry put together.

The other thing Xiaomi is famous for its is alleged aping of Apple. It’s certainly true that when Apple showed the world that human technology sells technology to humans, Xiaomi was listening. But the company has also been accused of copying everything from handset design, OS and even management style (its CEO, Lei Jun, favours jeans and a black t-shirt too). In short, they are usually referred to as ‘The Chinese Apple’, an opportunist shanzai (counterfeit) company taking the established Apple model and giving it a Chinese twist. In China, as JWT's Asia-Pacific CEO Tom Doctoroff explains, “Innovation is always incremental or feature-driven, never a breakthrough”.

There is a deeply-seated assumption among Western consumers that this is a bad thing. Most of China would disagree. Perhaps it's just cultural prejudice that means we assume the big idea is more important than the small stuff. But is it really small stuff anyway? Scratch the surface, and you’ll find that Xiaomi is actually a very different idea indeed.

Specifically, Xiaomi has no stores, and sells everything online, meticulously analysing user feedback to improve both software and hardware in the next small batch of around 100,000 phones that’s released every Tuesday (for more on the company's marketing and sales model, please see "Xiaomi: Rewriting the rules of branding in China"). Their mission is to ‘change hardware like it's software’ with every release ‘incrementally better’.

Users (called ‘me fans’) can modify the handset, the OS (Miui), and pretty much everything else. Where Apple is a testament to the power of top-down, brand-out marketing, Xiaomi is experimenting with true user-centricity. It’s not ‘designed in California’. It’s designed by ordinary people everywhere, everyday. Xiaomi is perhaps the closest we’ve come to a crowdsourced brand. It’s nothing short of a xiao revolution.

When all’s said and done, design is not just about aesthetics. As Steve Jobs once explained: ‘In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer… but to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design’.

Katie Ewer is strategy director at JKR Global in Singapore.
Check out the rest of the Asian Champions of Design series.


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