Two years ago, two small firms Oppo and Vivo couldn’t crack the top five in China’s smartphone market. Now they outrank everyone after elbowing Apple aside, thanks to people like Cheng Xiaoning.
Ms Cheng runs a thriving electronics store in the rural town of Miaoxia, tapping into her WeChat social media account to promote the brands that pay the biggest commission, and in her case that’s Oppo and Vivo.
While such payments start at about 40 yuan (€5.50), they escalate for more expensive handsets and reach almost 200 yuan for Oppo’s high-end smartphones.
“That’s why I like to introduce the Oppo R9 Plus to potential customers,” she said. “Business has been perfect, actually never been better.”
Ms Cheng and tens of thousands of like-minded boosters form the vanguard of the pair’s charge against Apple and Samsung.
Working with the local stores that dominate sales in China’s far-flung provinces, Oppo and Vivo came out of nowhere to upend the industry order and squeeze out former local darling Xiaomi.
Their labels graced one out of every three smartphones sold within China in the third quarter, while the iPhone’s market share at 7% stood at its lowest in almost three years.
Oppo and Vivo trace their origins to reclusive billionaire Duan Yong Ping and employ similar strategies.
That includes harnessing the spending power of rural customers away from top-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
It’s where Apple’s vulnerable given the iPhone’s lofty price tag. They eschewed e-commerce to instead court the stores where three-quarters of smartphone sales take place.
Apple has been more reluctant to relinquish the retail experience to local free-agents, who sometimes charge brands for in-store displays and posters.
“Oppo and Vivo are willing to share their profit with local sales. The reward was an extremely active and loyal nationwide sales network,” said Jin Di, an IDC analyst based in Beijing.
While they declined to detail their subsidy programme, she estimates the two were the top spenders in the past year. “They’re doing something different -- they do local marketing.”
China had for years driven Apple’s and Samsung’s growth.
The US company generated almost $59bn (€55.5bn) of sales from the region in fiscal 2015, which was more than double the level just two years earlier.
During that time its shares surged more than 60%. At its peak, Greater China yielded almost 30% of its revenue and Apple was neck-and-neck with Xiaomi for the mantle of market leader as users clamoured for the larger iPhone 6 models.
Even as the domestic economy began to sputter, chief executive officer Tim Cook spent a good chunk of an earnings call last year talking up the country’s promise, saying Apple’s investing there “for the decades ahead.”
Then the country’s slowdown and regulatory tangles took their toll.
Authorities intervened, blocking iTunes Movies and iBooks, ending a period of near-unimpeded growth in the country. But perhaps most crucial was the ascendancy of cheaper but just-as-good local alternatives.
Oppo and Vivo’s gains have come mainly at the expense of lower-tier names thus far, but if they climb further into the premium segment, the US company will need an answer.
Some think the 10th-anniversary iPhone due in 2017 could deliver.
“Apple needs to offer something cutting-edge to appeal to maturing Chinese smartphone users,” Counterpoint Research director Neil Shah writes. Oppo and Vivo can use the time until then to cement their positions, he said.
Together Oppo and Vivo shipped about 40 million smartphones in the third quarter, about 34% of devices sold in the world’s biggest market, according to IDC.
In 2012, their combined share was about 2.5%. IPhone shipments plunged more than a third to 8.2 million during the period -- less than half of Vivo’s. Samsung, which once led the market, now settles for roughly 5%, according to Counterpoint.
As Apple has faltered in China, Mr Cook has stepped up his courtship of decision-makers.
He visited the country several times this year, unveiled plans for research centers in Beijing and Shenzhen, and invested $1bn in Uber rival Didi Chuxing.
Mr Cook said on his last earnings call he remains confident of a return to growth this quarter.
Samsung declined to comment for this story, while Apple directed Bloomberg to Mr Cook’s previous remarks on China.
It’s unclear how Apple can reclaim lost ground in the interim. Previous attempts to drift down-market -- with the iPhone 5c and SE, for instance -- fizzled as local users shunned seemingly inferior devices.
Apple doesn’t run a vibrant online social community for users the way some of its local rivals do. And competing on price will jeopardise the industry’s fattest profit margins.
Oppo and Vivo pack high-end specs into a phone that sells for a fraction of its rival’s in China. Consider the Oppo R9 plus: for 2,999 yuan, buyers get an aluminum body, 6-inch display, 16-megapixel camera and a battery that claims 19 hours of calls, photo and web browsing.
Vivo’s high-end Xplay6, with a price tag of 4,498 yuan, also undercuts Apple.
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