A Chinese company plays cricket to sell smartphones in India

Aparna Kalra August 25, 2016 5 min

“Six,” shouts Oppo India’s CEO Mike Wong. He is in shorts, has a cold drink can in his hand which he chugs from often. Bhaskar Jha, a social media marketing executive at Oppo India, smiles politely but firmly declines to mark the shot as a boundary. It is important that Wong gets Jha’s assent — he is keeping score.

Wong is not to be thwarted. An even more charged-up game play follows. Furious and hot. The sun is blazing, we are in Gurugram (as Gurgaon, the satellite city of capital New Delhi, has been renamed since April) on a Saturday afternoon, in an open field owned by a sports academy.

“Six,” Wong shout again, even louder.

The Indian scorekeeper nods this time. “The Chinese have learnt. My boss just took a wicket. they all really love football, they don’t know how to play cricket,” says Jha.

Oppo India teams get ready for a cricket match before the May weekend turns really warm
Oppo India teams get ready for a cricket match before the May weekend turns really warm. Photo credit: Abhinav Singh.

Padding up for India

Cricket is the way Oppo, a Chinese mobile company that broke into the top five list of handset makers worldwide in the first quarter of 2016, hopes to make its way into Indian pockets and Indian hearts. Oppo ranked fourth after Apple, Samsung and Huawei, displacing Lenovo. Rival Vivo came in at No. 5 edging out Xiaomi.

Chinese mobile companies, which entered India in 2014, did not make a dent in the market immediately. But, slowly and surely, they are seeing results here. Oppo, Vivo and Gionee gave the top three brands, Samsung, Micromax and Intex tough competition in the April-June quarter of 2016, The Economic Times reported recently.

Oppo is using a mix of higher margins, marketing savvy and brand recall to make inroads in the highly-fragmented Indian market. It is also using cricket to worm itself into Indian consciousness. Earlier this year, the company became the International Cricket Council (ICC)’s official partner for four years, a deal that brought with it the sponsorship of the T20 World Cup. But the involvement did not stop there.

The Chinese executives of Oppo visited matches, met players, and are now playing the game to know it better. The competitiveness in the T20 matches and the passion there were an eye-opener for Wong.

Mike Wong, CEO, Oppo India, may have the wrong bowling action but has his passion for cricket right
Mike Wong, CEO, Oppo India, may have the wrong bowling action but has his passion for cricket right. Photo credit: Abhinav Singh.

Which brings us back to Gurugram.

Levi Lee, easily the most athletic on the field, has moved from having fun with the bat to fielding. CEO Wong is shouting encouragement to him. Lee is director of digital marketing for Oppo India, which fixes his share of responsibility for the Hrithik Roshan-Sonam Kapoor ads with Oppo smartphones that popped up regularly during the T20 matches and now in social media feeds.

Lee pleads guilty of being a huge Kapoor fan. He is standing close to the crease and has to scamper away mid-conversation to chase a ball. He comes back panting to explain why he and his colleagues are embracing the gentleman’s game.

“Sky (Li, vice president of Oppo and MD of its international mobile business) said you are not here just to do business, you are here to love the country,” says Lee.

Oppo, he says, is holding these matches every two weeks for its staff. “I am used to sport. Football is my favourite. Cricket is very exciting, sometimes you feel your team is losing but it wins. Gradually, we will be as good as our Indian colleagues,” he says with conviction is his grin.

Lee says he struggled to adjust to India’s culture and its food upon arrival here a few months ago, but is slowly getting comfortable here.

A new religion

Chinese handset makers see India among their most significant markets. It is not surprising then that Oppo and Vivo, even as they catch up with Apple in China, have designs on India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market with over 220 million users.

2014 was Oppo’s foundation year in India when it got to know customer needs, says Phillip Wu, a public relations manager at Oppo India. From 2015, he adds, “India has become our priority in overseas markets; we are putting more resources and effort here.” (Wu has returned to China now). Oppo, which has announced an investment of Rs 100 crore in a factory in India, is planning to come up with more low-range and mid-segment smartphones.

The importance of India is not lost on the teams playing the Gurugram cricket match.

The game is on! Photo credit: Abhinav Singh.

For Oppo, India represents “opportunity”, says Fiona Tang, part of its HR team, and the only woman to brave the heat at the crease.

“I want to learn the local famous sport,” says Tang, behind trendy sunglasses.

Her colleague, Nana Lee, is offended when I ask if she understands the game.

“Of course. We sponsored the T20, we should,” says Nana Lee, part of the Oppo India marketing team. This is her first experience of a beyond-40 degree hot summer (the match was played in May). “In China, it is not so hot.”

She has her favourites. On the field, it is Mahendra Singh Dhoni and she thinks Yuvraj Singh is better than Virat Kohli. Oppo works with Yuvraj’s foundation ‘YouWeCan’ helping spread cancer awareness even as Yuvaraj launches OPPO phones in metro malls.

Cricket is not the only thing Oppo has embraced in India; it believes Bollywood is equally important
Cricket is not the only thing Oppo has embraced in India; it believes Bollywood is equally important. Photo credit: Abhinav Singh.

Soon, the match is over. Green-coloured Oppo umbrellas are out and drinks have arrived: lassi packets along with cold drink in large boxes full of ice. Marketing head Heber Dai is trying to guess what ‘lassi’ means. “Milk with water,” a staffer explains. Not quite; lassi is more like yoghurt sweetened with water. No worries, Dai likes it.

His next question: who is most famous female superstar in India? The Indians among the Oppo staff can’t seem to agree on Deepika Padukone, Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif or someone else.

“In India, if you want to engage with Indian audience, one is cricket, then Bollywood,” says spokesman Wu. Cricket, clearly, is not going to be the only religion at Oppo.


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