How OnePlus' launch polished its image to take on the industry's best

As the OnePlus 7 Pro makes its debut in the company's strongest ever marketing push in the US, an analysis of the phone's announcement shows how OnePlus set expectations for a more premium experience and price.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

OnePlus' well-played execution of the OnePlus 7 Pro's launch earlier this month offered a solid case study in how to capture attention and generate excitement in a mature and crowded category of strong products. 

The company began by introducing its revamped marketing slogan: "Share the best technology with the world." While it's a fairly generic slogan, OnePlus CMO Kyle Kiang primed the pump for what was to follow by pointing out the word "best," setting up that the company was no longer about the best value at a given price but serious about competing with any offering in the market, and thus, it set the expectation for not only a best-in-class feature set but also a price bump from earlier offerings.

For those who aren't loyal to a brand (an asset that OnePlus is seeking to polish), the four most significant purchase motivators are screen, camera, battery life, and -- for more technical users -- processor. OnePlus had a differentiating message for the first two of these and at least a competitive message for the last two.

In terms of the screen, where curved edges have become more widely adopted, the company was able to point to its notchless edge-to-edge display and the display's souped-up refresh rate. Since Samsung began shipping phones with the now oft-imitated tapering side glass, it has tried to make the case that such edges are more than just a design element. OnePlus offered its own take on this, with a notification light that surrounds the display but does not interfere with core functionality.

Regarding the camera, where three rear cameras are becoming more common among flagships, it was able to point to strong ratings from DxO and Displaymate. And then, of course, there is the OnePlus 7 Pro's most standout (literally) design element: The popup selfie camera. OnePlus tacitly showed the advantage of its approach, as it showed off what the camera's inclusion enabled it to do with the screen. The company is neither the first nor even most recent to unveil a popup camera. (ASUS has developed its own variant with the Zenfone 6). But OnePlus anticipated potential objections to the design by demonstrating how its protuberance could hold a suspended heavy weight as well as how it automatically retracts if it detects the phone is in freefall. True, the extending camera interrupts the sleek exterior of the phone's body when extended. But a selfie-accommodating notch or screen punch-out (as seen on the Galaxy S10 or the new Motorola One Vision) disrupts the display of the device for a much more common set of scenarios.

For other traits, the differences were not as proprietary, although the company defended its options effectively versus competition. Regarding battery, it announced a 4,000mAh hour capacity, a psychologically significant number beyond, say, the 3,500mAh battery in the Pixel 3a, even with Google's assurances that it has tuned the software to provide exceptional battery life with that capacity. And for the processor, it is using Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855, the company's latest, thus offering an assurance of at least parity with other flagship Android smartphones.

On the other hand, the smartphone challenger also took some marketing risks in its launch. The crowning bravado of the presentation came with OnePlus' assurance that the OnePlus 7 Pro would be the best smartphone that you'd be able to purchase this year. While competitors may not best OnePlus among the features it emphasized in its introduction in the coming months, the OnePlus 7 Pro already lacks a few useful features out of the gate such as reverse charging. That said, while the claim carries a credibility risk, it's a great message of reassurance to a prospective customer dazzled by the incessant rounds of leap frog that characterize each new phone introduction.

Another risk comes from OnePlus's promotion of its "Oxygen" Android variant based on Android Pie. Such deviations have long been subject to backlash. But OnePlus proactively countered by defending Oxygen as "better than stock Android." Its inclusion hasn't seemed to dampen enthusiasm or the brand yet.

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There has been more to OnePlus's rollout of the OnePlus 7 Pro beyond its introduction and T-Mobile "takeovers" that took place in New York and other cities. The once-quiet company is running huge digital outdoor advertisements in Times Square by the T-Mobile store in which it launched. In a much-criticized move given its positioning of IP water resistance ratings as expensive and wasteful, and while it acknowledged its legion of longtime loyalists, OnePlus has hired Robert Downey, Jr., as a spokesperson. The actor, who has helped rake in billions of dollars in his Iron Man persona for Marvel Studios, was associated with far less ROI for smartphone maker HTC, which hired him in 2013. The timing coincided with the start of a long decline of HTC, which, like OnePlus, had previously risen from obscurity with the help of brand advocates and a limited marketing budget.

But that was a different time, and OnePlus, which has flirted with the Marvel Cinematic Universe before, is a different company. As it seeks to expand its base, it will have to resort to more traditional marketing means. With its success and that of its BBK sister brands Oppo and Vivo, particularly in their native China, there should be plenty in the war chest for the foreseeable future.

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