Yesterday I had a long conversation with someone whose job is related closely to mobile phone design. You’d recognize his employer’s name very easily. He asked me about extremely affordable phones for the low income segment in emerging markets. Late in the year of 2012, I found myself hesitating before answering immediately with a resounding “Yes” to support the concept of low cost mobile phones for the BoP customer in India, Africa or wherever.
That was enough to make me reflect on why I hesitated. After all, wasn’t this the default aspirational outcome for these demanding customers?
It was, indeed. But the narrative has not yet caught up with the reality on the ground. For citations, lets go to Alexis Madrigal’s article on The Phone of 2022, where he mentions:
No one has tracked these market shifts better than Horace Dediu at Asymco. He’s documented what he calls “a tale of two disruptions,” one from above in Apple and one from below in cheap Chinese and Indian manufacturers. In just the last five years, Nokia, LG, and RIM have seen their market shares and profits collapse due to this pincer movement.
This disruption from below has changed the mobile phone landscape for the lower income segments everywhere. Suddenly, their aspirations are affordable and the trade offs they make are now between a cheap fake with all the trimmings and a more expensive brand with less features, not between a phone and no phone at all.
For branded manufacturers of mobile phones, going after this low cost segment simply does not make sense anymore. Their own cost structure will never support what a Bird or a Tecno is able to provide for quite the same price. The low end mobile phone market is now a commodity market, where even the repairmen tell you that people don’t bother to get their phones fixed anymore because a Chinese replacement is cheaper than the branded spare parts. Furthermore, mobiles are a personal asset and one worth saving up for – why not aspire to the best possible you can afford?
Thus you’ll find a taxi driver in Nairobi flashing his iPhone or the security guard with Blackberry curve. The “smart” aspect of the phone may not always have to do with the innards of the device.
Human beings are aspirational. This shift in the consumer’s perception and choice in response to the larger shifts as documented in the snippet above includes the reality of increased choice. Even 4 years ago, it was difficult for a poor farmer to contemplate the purchase of a mobile, seeming as it did a shiny shiny way outside his grasp. Today’s market forces have brought it home to him, well within his reach, as any beachboy surfing Facebook will inform you.
The old emerging market for mobile phones narrative is a dangerous one for the big global brands. The emerging stories are now the Tecno’s and the MicroMax’s. Yes, there is a lowest income bracket or those 2 remaining families without a phone, but that market has now spun out of reach. The digital divide is being bridged by names you’ve never heard of and the discards of those who’ve gone on ahead.
Far better to take a step back from the fray and think about where the dots are with regard to the mass majority markets of the world. The internet experience. The window to the wider world. The global social network. The aspirations that the commodities cannot fulfill as easily. Far, far better to offer a stairway up than a dumbing down. Nobody aspires to be the bottom of anything.