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April 17, 2017

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Phone makers are showing their true colors

SAMSUNG, Apple, Huawei and other major players in the highly competitive smartphone industry are adding color to their arsenal of marketing weapons. Color is viewed as a form of self-expression, just like the hue of shoes or a necktie you may buy.

As a tech industry observer, I used to think that new phone colors targeted niche markets. I was wrong. When Apple released a new red iPhone 7, the first time the company adopted crimson in its most important product line, social media was abuzz. Netizens were clamoring for information on where to get their hands on the new color phones. It all went beyond niche.

Information technology aficionados and journalists covering the industry, who understand the iPhone operating system, have complained about the lack of technical innovation in recent generations of Apple iPhones, but they don’t quibble about color.

“Color says things,” said Li Jun, who works at a Shanghai-based design firm and produces artistic pictures of new models for smartphone vendors.

It can “market products and define user groups,” a commercial concept just entering the smartphone industry, he added.

In the new “color battle,” Huawei, the world’s No. 3 vendor behind Samsung and Apple, went out of its way to stress hues.

At the recent release of Huawei’s 2017 flagship P10, Yu Chengdong, the company’s head of consumer business, showed models with new colors, including one called greenery.

He spent 10 minutes talking about “design and trends” in colors before introducing other advantages, such as the camera. That was a bit surprising since the new phone is being marketed as a “portrait photography master.”

Huawei has allied with US-based Pantone to put the “color of the year” on the P10. Since 2000, the Pantone Color Institute has declared a particular “color of the year,” which is often quickly adopted by fashion designers, florists and other consumer-oriented companies. The color this year is green, or, as Pantone calls it: greenery.

“Greenery is symbolic of new beginnings,” Pantone said on its website. “It is a fresh, zesty yellow-green shade that evokes the first days of spring, when nature’s greens revive, restore and renew. Consumers are increasingly comfortable using color as a form of expression. It is a medium through which individuals can express themselves to the world around them. Huawei recognizes this evolving consumer dynamic.”

Meanwhile, the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, which will be available on April 21, are being offered in an exotic palette, including midnight black, orchid gray, Arctic silver, coral blue and maple gold.

Domestic brands Oppo and Vivo have already adopted color as a strategy, not only on their products, but also on accessories, packaging and even outlet store colors. In the IT circle, Oppo is called the “green company” and Vivo “the blue company.”

Samsung, Apple, Huawei, Oppo and Vivo were the top five global smartphone sellers in 2016.

“The smartphone has become a necessary consumer accessory, like handbags and wallets,” said Jia Mo, an analyst at Shanghai-based Canalys.

In the supply chain, changing colors is relatively low cost and easy to achieve, compared with the huge investments required for chip and camera upgrades. That makes color a great opportunity for marketing strategy, said Jia.

In the not-so-long history of the industry, color has created waves.

Though the Nokia brand has faded from market prominence, the debut of its Lumia 800 in 2011 still looms large in the memories of many phone buyers, including me. It’s still hard to forget the elegant blue color and curved screen that came on the market six years ago.

Another recent example was Apple’s first gold iPhone. It sold out quickly in official stores, creating an extra cost of 3,000 yuan (US$435) in the “gray market” — much higher than the same model in other colors. The popularity was dubbed the “rich gold wave” by Chinese, who consider gold the symbol of luck and fortune.

For my part, I really like the green models of Huawei and Oppo. Oppo’s R9s and green mobile audio speakers are particularly popular among women. Several female journalists called them “cute” gadgets. Still, I have no plans to change my iPhone 7 Plus, even though it’s a standard dull black.

I am used to Apple’s interface and systems already. Color doesn’t change them.

Jia sounded a warning about the new color strategies.

“Colors won’t be unique advantages for long because they are easy to copy,” he said. “For big brands, offering too many colors also creates unnecessary pressures on supply chains.”

Some journalists have speculated that Apple’s red iPhone release is designed to reverse a waning market shares in China.

That’s not the whole story.

For 10 years, Apple has had a partnership with (RED), a charity established in 2006 by Bono and others to support HIV-AIDS programs that provide counseling, testing and medicine. So far, the program has raised over US$130 million through the sale of authorized (RED) products, said Apple on its website.


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