by Michael O'Neill
September 12th, 2013

The launch of the iPhone 5C this week was widely anticipated in China, with overall sentiment pre-launch suggesting this new, lower priced model would finally make the smartphone brand accessible to a wider Chinese market.

As it turned out, the 5C was a big disappointment for Chinese consumers. The standard retail price for the 5C in China was set at RMB 4,488 (US$728), compared to RMB 5,228 for the iPhone 5S. The ‘cheap’ option had failed to materialise.

But while the 5C launch has dominated headlines throughout the week, it was far from the only brand being discussed. An interesting postscript to the 5C story has been the emergence of Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi as the default alternative to Apple.

Xiaomi

In the build up to the launch, Xiaomi was clearly the the media favourite when looking for a narrative juxtaposition to the 5C in China. Positioned as the plucky challenger brand (ironic, seeing as Xiaomi has a slightly larger share of the China smartphone market than Apple), Xiaomi stood for everything the 5C wasn’t — fresh, intriguing, and of course much, much cheaper.

Post-launch, this trend magnified. In fact, it was harder to find an article about the 5C in China that didn’t mention Xiaomi. See here, here and here for just a few examples.

In simple storytelling terms, it could be argued that every protaganist (Apple) needs an antagonist (Xiaomi). And for sure, given Chinese consumer indifference to the new iPhone, journalists and analysts have turned to Xiaomi as one way of keeping the story interesting. Just today, UK-based newspaper The Guardian became the latest media company to publish an article asking whether Xiaomi could soon be the Apple of China.

But this only partly explains the media love-in. After all, Xiaomi is hardly Apple’s only competitor in China. Brands such as Lenovo, Samsung, Huawei and ZTE all have a bigger market share than Xiaomi and yet did not receive as much media attention.

The answer, I think, lies in the Xiaomi back story. While the likes of Huawei and ZTE struggle to be anything other than large corporations (with strong ties to Chinese Government thrown in), Xiaomi has cultivated the image of an innovative, entrepreneurialtech company; a challenger brand in a market dominated by huge conglomerates.

And then there is the CEO factor. Xiaomi’s chairman and CEO Lei Jun is often referred to as “China’s Steve Jobs”. This may be a lazy comparison (although Lei’s penchant for hosting product launches in jeans and dark t-shirts has done nothing to discourage this labelling) but it is one that has stuck. Put his name into Google and see for yourself.

An open, media-friendly company with an engaging story and a charasmatic CEO? Small wonder the international media chose Xiaomi as its new China tech darling.

Michael O’Neill is digital managing editor, Asia Pacific, at Weber Shandwick