Ever since Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi entered the Indian market six years ago, it has run an ad campaign targeting India’s biggest religious festival, Diwali, that features a clever tagline: “Diwali with Mi”—Mi being shorthand for Xiaomi. The ads are so closely associated with the holiday that Indians look forward to them the way Americans anticipate Coca-Cola’s polar bear ads at Christmas.
This year’s campaign was a mashup of pop culture and the C-suite, featuring Baba Sehgal, India’s first breakout Hindi rapper, and Xiaomi’s 39-year-old global vice president and managing director of India, Manu Kumar Jain—or Manu-J, for the purposes of the videos. In between a catchy refrain of “Diwali with Mi,” the two trade zingers about who’s the better rapper.
Jain tells Fortune, with a laugh, that the videos were “embarrassing,” but they seemed to strike a chord with Indian consumers. The most popular video in the series was viewed on YouTube more than 6 million times, and Xiaomi sold 9 million smartphones during the monthlong sales period. The brand usually sells 12 million phones in a single quarter in India, so Jain deemed this Diwali, which ended Nov. 14, Xiaomi’s best yet.
The Diwali ads are one way the 10-year-old Beijing-based technology company has embedded itself in India. It has also moved manufacturing to the subcontinent, earned the right to open thousands of retail stores, and developed phones and other gadgets with the Indian consumer in mind—smart water purifier, anyone? It’s gone all in where other foreign phone brands have danced around the edges.
The investment in the world’s fastest-growing mobile market, where over 300,000 people power up their first smartphone every day, has made Xiaomi India’s bestselling smartphone brand for three years running. In 2020 so far, it has sold 29 million phones, 2 million more than in China, to control a full quarter of India’s smartphone market.
After it launched a decade ago, tech journalists called Xiaomi the “Apple of China,” because of its sleek, affordable phones that catered to China’s young, growing middle class. The association fueled Xiaomi hype—the now public company was the world’s most valuable private startup in 2016—but it annoyed designers in Cupertino who derided Xiaomi’s handsets as cheap iPhone wannabes. Xiaomi is now a bona fide phone giant, with $30 billion in revenue last year and a market capitalization of $78.4 billion. And Xiaomi’s India sales—responsible for 20% of all revenue, according to Morgan Stanley—have helped pull the brand fully out of Apple’s shadow, at least by one measure: In the third quarter of 2020, Xiaomi’s worldwide phone shipments landed it in third place, ahead of Apple (No. 4) for the first time.
Navkendar Singh, a tech analyst at consultancy International Data Corporation (IDC), describes Xiaomi’s recent track record in India as “growing, growing, growing,” but it does face one strong headwind: Indian consumers’ anti-China sentiment. A border skirmish between Indian and Chinese military forces in June ignited boycotts of Chinese goods. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist government keeps stoking the backlash, which means Xiaomi’s trajectory on the subcontinent may depend on whether the roots it planted in India qualify the brand as Indian enough.
Xiaomi landed in India in 2014 with its flagship Mi 3 phone, which featured a faster processor, better camera, and more memory than other phones at its price point of roughly $200. What’s more, Singh says, Xiaomi offered 4G services, while competitors like Samsung, Microsoft, and Indian brand Micromax were stuck on 3G.
India represented Xiaomi’s first major international expansion, and it brought to the subcontinent the same “flash sale” strategy that had catapulted it briefly to No. 1 in its home market just four years after its launch. (It later lost that title to cheaper rivals as well as Beijing’s champion telecom brand, Huawei.) Selling products only online, in limited batches, created a frenzy among buyers and avoided overproduction costs; eschewing physical stores meant saving on overhead.
Xiaomi partnered with Flipkart, an Indian e-commerce startup that is now one of the nation’s flagship tech giants, as the sole distributor of its phones. The first batch of roughly 10,000 Mi 3 smartphones sold out within half an hour of launch in July 2014. A second flash sale later that same month sold out in five seconds, and a third round in August sold out in two ticks, Flipkart said.
The mania could have come to a sudden stop in 2015, when Modi’s administration doubled tariffs on smartphone imports to 12.5% as part of its “Make in India” initiative to onshore manufacturing. Had Xiaomi kept its supply chain in place—it was almost entirely based in China at the time—the tariffs would have forced it to raise prices, forfeiting a big competitive edge. Instead, it partnered with phone assembler Foxconn to set up a manufacturing site in India in 2015, a first for both companies.
The new Indian factory earned Xiaomi the all-important Made in India label and shielded it from Modi’s tariffs. With its low price point secured, Xiaomi India’s market share leaped from 3.3% in 2015 to 13.3% the next year.
The Chinese market’s gone backward … but India’s still been growing. [Xiaomi] focused on the right market at the right time.
Dan Baker, senior equity analyst at Morningstar
Xiaomi shifted its focus beyond the mainland before many of its Chinese rivals, says Dan Baker, a senior equity analyst at Morningstar. “The Chinese market’s gone backward for a while, in terms of volumes, but India’s still been growing, so they focused on the right market at the right time.”
In moving its supply chain to India, Xiaomi was a half-decade ahead of Apple, which only started manufacturing iPhones in India—also through Foxconn—last year.
Xiaomi also beat Apple to opening up physical stores on the subcontinent. Jain says Xiaomi abandoned its online-only sales strategy in India in 2017 after realizing that stealing market share demanded a physical presence. Even now, over 50% of all smartphone sales in India are made offline.
Until last year, the Modi government kept foreign retailers from setting up their own stores, unless they sourced 30% of their manufacturing from India. Unlike Apple, which lobbied Modi’s government to change the rule, Xiaomi opted to meet it. After a year of back and forth with regulators, Xiaomi in 2017 got the green light to open its own retail outlets. Xiaomi now has more than 3,000 Mi-branded stores across India. In 2019, Modi’s government relaxed the 30% rule, and Apple is due to open its first Apple Store in India next year.
The Mi stores sell phones, yes, but they also serve as showrooms for another bright spot in Xiaomi’s India business: Internet-connected gadgets. “Probably the part of Xiaomi’s business that has done better than expected … is the Internet of Things (IoT) lifestyle products,” says Baker.
Walk into a Mi store and you’ll encounter rice cookers, electric scooters, weighing scales, and robot vacuums—an entire ecosystem of interconnected smart devices that orbit the Xiaomi mobile phone. The Mi scale, for example, connects to a Mi fitness app that can track body mass index and suggests relevant exercise regimes.
In 2019, Xiaomi’s IoT device sales globally generated roughly $9.5 billion for the company, an increase of 41.7% from the year before and about 30% of the company’s total revenue. In India, Xiaomi has parlayed its pole position in smartphones to be the market leader in smart TVs and wearable tech.
Rival brands like Indian firm Realme and China’s Oppo—both top-five smartphone makers in India—are starting to target the same IoT segments, says Nomura analyst Donnie Teng, but Xiaomi has a first-mover advantage. “The life cycle for IoT products is much longer than the one for smartphones, so time is the best barrier Xiaomi can deploy to prevent competitors from entering the market,” Teng says. But since IoT devices last for so long, Xiaomi is under pressure to keep developing new products. Just this year, Xiaomi has launched new smartwatches, smart lights, and smart speakers in the Indian market.
“We believe the Internet of Things can be a big opportunity for us because there’s so much more we can do,” Jain says. Xiaomi also launched a smart beard trimmer this year. It doubles as a hair trimmer, Jain says, running a hand over his shaved head, and it’s seen “off the chart” demand, thanks to pandemic lockdowns keeping everyone away from barbershops.
Despite years of ingratiating its brand with Indian consumers, Xiaomi’s identity as a Chinese company has left it susceptible to the whims of India and China’s long-standing geopolitical rivalry.
The feud erupted on the China-India border in June when troops from both countries clashed, leaving 20 Indian soldiers dead. (The Chinese death toll is not publicly known.)
Modi’s government retaliated by banning 177 Chinese apps, a move the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said was “to ensure safety, security, and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace.” Meanwhile, the Confederation of All India Traders—a union that says it represents 70 million merchants across India—called for a boycott of Chinese goods with a campaign dubbed “Indian Goods—Our Pride.” According to local media, the group identified 3,000 categories of goods that “must immediately be replaced by Indian products.”
Four Xiaomi apps, including its web browser and video-calling platform, were caught in the purge and, according to Jain, a “mob mentality” on social media threatened its sales.
Jain, himself an Indian national, responded by touting Xiaomi’s adopted Indian identity, telling local media that Xiaomi was “as Indian as any other company here.” In other interviews, he said Xiaomi customers are “very intelligent” and would be able to identify the company’s Indian “spirit.” Lest they forget, a few Mi stores plastered “Made in India” signs in their windows that pointed to Xiaomi’s local supply chain.
Initially, Xiaomi weathered the anti-China movement and remained India’s top smartphone seller not because it had fooled consumers into thinking it was anything but Chinese, but because in India “there [were] no real alternatives” to Chinese phones that are still in Xiaomi’s price territory, says Neil Shah, an analyst at Counterpoint Research. (Apple, a U.S. brand, is considered higher-end; the cheapest iPhone on the Apple Store in India is $526.)
That was true, at least, until South Korea’s Samsung began flooding India with phones that could compete with Xiaomi’s features and affordability. Samsung’s phones hit the market just as anti-China attitudes were ramping up. Between the first and second quarters, Samsung’s smartphone market share in India grew 10 percentage points. By the third quarter, it had overtaken Xiaomi as No. 1, according to data from Counterpoint Research, ending Xiaomi’s streak of 12 consecutive quarters on top. (Other market analysts like Canalys and IDC show Xiaomi retaining its lead.)
“If there were no anti-China sentiments in India, and Samsung didn’t expand its portfolio, Xiaomi would have gone to 30% or more of India’s smartphone market,” says Shah.
Whether Xiaomi ever reaches that threshold will depend on it shaking the anti-China stigma for good and fending off new challengers. It’s not just Samsung; the most formidable newcomer could be the low-price smartphone that’s forthcoming from Google and its new partner, Jio Platforms.
Jio is the digital arm of Reliance Industries, a conglomerate based in Mumbai and founded by Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, and its homegrown credentials may foster more goodwill among Indian consumers than any amount of battle rap can muster.
A version of this article appears in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Fortune with the headline, “The ‘Apple of China’ goes big in India.”