Rahul Sachitanand
Jul 30, 2020

How OnePlus' Nord became a breakout star in the middle of a pandemic

By upending the rules of mobile handset marketing, the Chinese handset upstart hopes to continue its offbeat marketing success.

How OnePlus' Nord became a breakout star in the middle of a pandemic

As a latecomer in a market of entrenched players, OnePlus, the mobile handset brand from Chinese electronics group BBK, has a history of using disruptive marketing strategies to get noticed. OnePlus has previously opted for an invite only approach to build curiosity about its brand, set up popup events and, more contentiously, ran a campaign pushing women to submit pictures of themselves for a free phone back in 2014.

Earlier this year, the handset brand, which had at that time become the top premium brand in India (it has since slipped) and the No. 3 player in Western Europe, again decided to upend conventional marketing plans for the rollout of its latest handset, the Nord. The handset maker expanded its focus from its premium perch to a more mass market focus in the middle of a pandemic.

The Nord is actually OnePlus’ second attempt at a mass-market smartphone. The company previously tried to make a dent in the market with the One Plus X, but couldn't shake its high-end perception to get traction in a crowded market, and the product quickly fizzled. This time around, executives say its products are better, there are fewer competitors in key markets, and consumers are ready. Along the way, OnePlus has graduated from being spoken of as a frugal marketer to paying big bucks to be endorsed by Hollywood star Robert Downey Jr.  

The One Plus X mass market phone was a commercial flop

While handset makers have historically tried to keep their latest launches under wraps in order to make a big splash, OnePlus decided to turn this strategy on its head. With the pandemic beginning to spread, the company instead opted to give its loyal brand of followers a four-part, behind-the-scenes look at how it pieced together its new product.

“A lot of people don’t buy into smartphone brands," says Akis Evangelidis, head of marketing for OnePlus Nord. "They are bombarded by products and specs and they buy a product with the best value for money. We wanted to create a unique visual identity for this product.”

The firm’s plans almost came unstuck at the first step. An ambitious plan to have an invite-only Instagram backfired, with the brand losing some 100,000 subscribers for closing off a normally (very) open view of its products. Some hasty retooling later, OnePlus smartly recouped its losses, adding a million subscribers in three weeks.


“We felt there is need for smartphone brand that dares to be open,” says Jacob Fant, managing partner, Seventy Agency, OnePlus Nord's agency that has previously worked with OnePlus. “There is openness and authenticity happening everywhere…. People want to know what their phone is made of and 'what company am I buying into?'"

While the four-part inside look at OnePlus' often fractious buildup to the Nord attracted decent eyeballs, further marketing plans were upended by the pandemic. "As soon as we started getting some momentum, Corona hit and pushed us back to our digital strengths—we took everything online," says Evangelidis. 

If OnePlus previously made a splash with offline events, such as its traveling bus in Europe and high-voltage physical popups, now OnePlus had been forced back to the drawing board. According to Evangelidis, the firm has seen some strong traction already; it had 30,000 virtual attendees at a digital popup for example. And an offline keynote and launch that usually sees thousands of in-person attendees was successfully taken online using AR and VR tools to showcase the new handset. 

OnePlus' efforts seem to be fructifying both in terms of digital and social-media engagements and business results. For example, its Instagram engagement rate is 15%, which is considered excellent. OnePlus' Nord registered 4.1 million 'notify me' clicks on Amazon India, the highest in the online platform's history for a smartphone. The phone also achieved the highest number of pre-booked phones. These stats were probably helped by 620,000 concurrent views of the brand's AR launch event, which reached 6 million total views over time. 

Evangelidis now thinks both OnePlus and Nord can expand their focus beyond existing markets to geographies such as southeast Asia, especially countries such as Malaysia, where its brand proposition could stick. "We worked across Stockholm, Shenzhen, UK, Bengaluru and Paris on this launch," he says. "We now have a lot of boxes to ship before we can consider expanding our footprint."

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