How to Learn From a Phone Company's Mistakes

By Mike Elgan Print this article Print
Smartphone mistakes

Forget about learning business lessons from Apple. It's time to take lessons from a smartphone company with a history of errors, blunders and bad decisions.

3. Don't be sexist.

OnePlus struggled from the beginning to meet demand for its phones. So the company relied on the initially compelling but eventually tiresome gimmick of being an invitation-only product. The company came out with a series of attention-grabbing publicity stunts to leverage scarcity created by the company's manufacturing limitations.

One of these was the so-called "Ladies First" contest, whereby OnePlus called for women to draw the OnePlus logo somewhere on their body or on a sheet of paper and post the picture on social media. The company promised that the 50 "most well-liked" photos (ranked mainly by male forum members) would win the subject a free T-shirt and permission to buy a OnePlus One phone.

A mindset that concluded that it was a good idea for female customers to photograph themselves to be judged by male customers in order to win the privilege of paying list price for a smartphone that was scarce only by the incompetence of the manufacturer has no place in business.

The scheme turned into a PR nightmare, with women photographing themselves with their middle fingers extended. There were accusations of sexism accompanying the OnePlus logo. And, of course, those photos were the ones that went viral.

OnePlus apologized and backtracked.

4. Don't be cavalier about the environment.

Then OnePlus' marketing department hatched another scheme that was devoid of sexism. This one abused the environment instead.

To drive home the false idea that OnePlus phones were fundamentally different from other phones, OnePlus initiated a "Smash the Past" contest. The company called on the public to capture video of themselves destroying their existing phone in order to win the chance to get one of 100 OnePlus phones for a $1 each.

Some 140,000 people destroyed perfectly good phones, unleashing toxic chemicals into the environment and wasting phones that could have been sold or put into the hands of someone who needed a phone.

After yet another PR fiasco, OnePlus backtracked and changed the rules, asking for contestants to instead donate their phones to charity.

5. Don't overstay your welcome on marketing gimmicks.

One key differentiator for OnePlus was that the public wasn't allowed to buy the phone: You had to be invited. Of course, you could apply for an invitation, but OnePlus slowly dribbled out its phones to users who initially felt lucky to have been chosen.

Come on: That was nearly two years ago. And OnePlus is still offering phones by invitation only. Now, the invitation system is mainly just an invitation to choose another phone.

6. Don't give up your core differentiator.

Despite the creation myth, marketing gimmicks, publicity stunts and scarcity theater, the OnePlus was really a pretty good phone at a very low price. But that's gone now.

While the midrange Android phone sweet spot has plunged to way below the OnePlus One's initial price of $299, the OnePlus 2 comes in at $389.

OnePlus gained an early reputation for being the best value. However, it failed to live up to that reputation, opting instead to raise the price in a market where prices are falling through the floor. The Moto G costs $179. Other phones are even cheaper.

You can argue the costs and benefits all day and make the case that the OnePlus 2 is still a good value. But it's far easier to make the case that other phones are a better value, and so the OnePlus differentiator is gone.

7. Don't promise the next thing until you've delivered on the current one.

The final insult to fans is that OnePlus has lately been promising a shiny new luxury smartphone, which seems to involve leather (probably a leather backplate). But this message is landing with a thud, as the fans await the delayed delivery of their OnePlus 2 phones.

The truth is that OnePlus could have been a great smartphone company. Instead, through a series of major blunders, it has squandered the initial goodwill among the Android phone-loving community.

Maybe OnePlus' greatest legacy is being the best example of what not to do as a company, and for everyone to learn that dishonesty, disrespect and gimmicks ultimately backfire.

Don't let this happen to you. Be honest. Be respectful. Under-promise and over-deliver. These are the foundations of lasting business success.

This article was originally published on 2015-09-28

Mike Elgan, a Baseline contributor, is a Silicon Valley-based columnist, writer, speaker and blogger. http://elgan.com/

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