- The Chinese smartphone brand Oppo is the fifth-biggest phone maker in the world and has outsmarted Apple in China and India.
- Oppo is largely unknown in the West, but officially launched in the UK on Tuesday and made three flagship devices available through retailer Carphone Warehouse.
- Oppo is part of a family of other massive smartphone brands such as Vivo and OnePlus.
- Oppo will find it tough to break in to the UK market, but it does have a reputation for adding cool new features to its smartphones.
Apple may be the defining smartphone company in the West, but there’s a crop of Asian brands that have outsmarted the California giant outside the US and Europe.
Few Westerners will have heard of the Chinese smartphone maker Oppo, but it’s one of the most recognisable brands in Asia and bigger than Apple in both India and China.
It’s the fifth-largest smartphone maker in the world, despite having almost no presence in the US or Europe, accounting for about 8% of all global phone sales. Only Apple, Samsung, Huawei, and Xiaomi are bigger worldwide.
Take a look at this chart, showing Oppo is the fifth-biggest smartphone maker:
Not only has Oppo conquered its home market, being the second-biggest phone maker in China behind Huawei, but it’s also cracked the top five brands in India. Apple has barely made a dent in India, thanks to the fact that even its cheapest phones cost double the price of alternatives.
Oppo’s success is due to a combination of marketing might, tech innovation, and clever pricing.
And now it’s getting serious about Western markets.
The company announced its official UK launch on Tuesday, introducing three of its devices into the UK market.
There’s the high-end Oppo Find X, which starts at £799; and the mid-range RX17 and RX17 Pro, costing £319 and £549 respectively.
Oppo also teased a 5G launch at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February.
“Consumers here are demanding, but we love it,” said Oppo sales director Terence Tan at the launch event. “In the last six months we launched in Italy, France, Spain and the Netherlands. We’ve been carefully planning for our launch in the UK. [We see] a need for our phones in this market.”
The Find X, essentially Oppo’s take on the iPhone X, will go up against other high-end phone models in the UK like Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and the Huawei P20 Pro.
Oppo has yet to launch in the US.
What makes the launch especially interesting is that Oppo isn’t a bit-part player but part of a family of brands that includes two other emerging smartphone giants.
“Oppo are a very interesting company because it’s one of the five players in the Chinese market, and owned by a holding company called BBK Electronics,” the analyst Ben Wood told Business Insider. “BBK owns Vivo and OnePlus.”
OnePlus, confusingly, has its own competitor to the Find X called the OnePlus 6T.
Oppo is pretty innovative on phone design, with the Find X featuring a pop-out camera
If you combined the Oppo, Vivo, and OnePlus brands, BBK is arguably the third-biggest smartphone maker in the world. BBK likes to bill its three brands as operating separately, and Wood says it’s never been clear whether the three brands have ever teamed up on, for example, components, “which would make sense.”
What might make Oppo appealing to Western consumers is its ability to innovate. Smartphone design hasn’t radically changed since the first iPhone came out in 2007, and the smartphone most people use day-to-day will still be a rectangular block featuring a large touchscreen and a good camera.
“They have shown repeatedly they have a great ability to innovate in different directions, especially at the higher end,” Wood said, pointing to the Oppo Find X.
The Find X’s most interesting feature is its take on the camera notch, Apple’s getaround for housing the camera on a full-screen display. Oppo avoided putting notch on its full-screen device by housing the camera in a section that pops out of the back of the phone. “That certainly captured the imagination of users,” Wood said.
You can see the pop-out camera via a GIF we made here:
“They are a company that is prepared to embark on innovation in a market where we’re stuck with the homogenous form factor, and design,” Wood added. “They’re ones to watch in terms of future design direction, and they do seem to be capable of nice, high-quality products.”
It’s really tough to bring an unknown smartphone brand to the UK
For all that BBK’s brands are doing well in China and India, Asian brands are all suffering from the wider smartphone slowdown in China. Apple made headlines after warning of a dip in iPhone demand, but its rivals need to work hard to expand outside their own markets too.
“It’s yet another company competing in the insanely competitive UK market at a time we’re seeing a slowdown,” he said. “Big players like Samsung, Apple, and Huawei are all investing disproportionate amounts of money into marketing and channel support in the UK. It’s hard to see how Oppo is going to be able to move the needle unless they spend ridiculous levels of money.”
It will also be difficult for Oppo to replicate its position as a high-end smartphone maker against the iPhone or Samsung’s Galaxy S9. Instead, the firm will probably compete more closely with Huawei, Wood suggested, with mid-tier phones.
And happily for Oppo, Huawei has done a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to introducing an unknown Chinese brand to the West.
“All these new challenger brands, Xiaomi, or Oppo, or Vivo, even OnePlus, companies coming with names that aren’t immediately a Western name, more a Chinese name – historically the UK market has been very brand conservative and reluctant to take a risk on products,” Wood said.
Huawei changed all that thanks to multiple, expensive marketing campaigns about how to say its name correctly and pushing its devices.
“Huawei products are giving a certain section of UK consumers confidence to try something where they don’t know the brand initially,” Wood said. “The people who buy Huawei are pleased, so there’s word-of-mouth acceptance that you don’t need to gravitate to the most recognised brands.”