While being the uncontested leader in 2014, by 2020, Samsung lost China entirely. From an 18% market share of the Chinese mobile phone market in 2014 to a measly 2% in 2018, by 2020, Samsung virtually disappeared from the Chinese mainland market. What went wrong, and why should you care?

China maps our future mobile market

You should care about Samsung adventures in China because it’s a fantastic story about tech global marketing and corporate strategy (or lack thereof).

As we speak, more than 1.2 billion Chinese consumers are subscribed to a mobile service (about 83% of the population). It’s a market where massive governmental investments push 5G, IoT devices are rising faster than in any other market, and mobile platforms are more than often the default mode for shopping. But it’s not only a massive tech-oriented market; it’s, more importantly, a very mature market. Most projections indicate that China will “only” add up to 60 million new mobile subscribers by 2025.

In that regard, China is a fantastic template for business strategists. Like it did for many years, it maps out the future of our US and European markets (even regarding tech regulation and quenching monopolies’ footprints–but this is another story).

What happens there matters for the rest of us.

What went wrong with Samsung

Samsung lost China within just a few years. From 2013 to 2019, Samsung went down in a rapid spiral of miscalculations, cultural lack of strategic awareness, and, above all, plain tone-deafness to the local market.

Here’s the short version:

  • Samsung is using Android and heavily relies on the Google app store worldwide. But Google exited China at the turn of 2010, and Chinese consumers don’t have access anymore to this app store. Granted that you can consider WeChat as a de facto mobile OS in China, Samsung never cared enough to build a decent alternative store. Why bother? It’s only the largest market on the planet.
  • Most of Samsung execs in China were Korean. Not a big surprise, in a culture that, like in Japan, but only trust in its own. This explains largely why they had such a struggle at connecting with the needs of the Chinese markets. But worse, as expats, they were all living in Tier I cities, with only a faint understand (if at all) of the reality of Tier III or IV cities in rural China.
  • An example of the tone-deaf culture of Samsung is the lack of beauty filters to enhance selfies taken with Samsung’s otherwise impressive mobile phone cameras. It might seem a detail, but in a highly online social market like China, it’s anything but.
  • In 2017, following the worldwide quality issues with the Galaxy Note 7 batteries catching fire, Samsung recalled the units sold to fix them. All of them? Yes. Except, of course, in China! Given the natural defiance and lack of trust of the Chinese consumers and their own extreme national pride, this was eventually the largest nail in Samsung’s market share coffin.
  • And lastly, instead of doubling down in their commitment to fighting in the Chinese market (5G? Anyone?), Samsung lost China by just deciding to cut its losses and disinvest its local consumer electronic devices factories in 2018. This again didn’t fly well in the Chinese public opinion at all. If you’re in China, you demonstrate your willingness to invest for the long haul or get rapidly busted.

I often repeat that culture’s a bitch, don’t I? Whether it’s your corporate culture or your local consumers’ culture, you ignore it at your own risk. When you ignore both, you enter a particular kind of business hell.

Samsung lack of focus

Furthermore, Chinese very own mobile manufacturers didn’t stay put while Samsung was trying to sort its own mess. A dozen of national companies ended up slicing the market with 3 different strategic approaches.

Xiaomi, the process-driven company

After some back and forth with flagship retail stores, Xiaomi shifted its focus to a no-store / pure online sales platform all across China. With good enough quality and affordable prices, the goal was to be the default phone for consumers ranging from rural parts to young urban. No frills, just reliable technology to get on WeChat and get things done.

Xiaomi was the first mobile manufacturer to introduce its own mobile payment system to rival Alibaba and Tencent in 2016.

Samsung? They never developed a horizontal online presence strong enough to address the Chinese market that way — try in your own country to get advice online through their website and despair.

Oppo and Vivo, the customer-driven companies

Oppo and Vivo, on the other hand, understanding they wouldn’t be as powerful as Xiaomi at addressing China in a very horizontal way, went vertical on the countryside and Tier III to IV cities. Call it low-cost if you want, but it’s not that simple, and both companies didn’t make the mistake of just fighting on price. They really cared about this part of the market and carved a precise identity in the western part of China, where they become difficult to displace. Contrary to Xiaomi, they didn’t balk, for example, at investing in a widespread retail presence (even if sometimes just meant small corner shops and an army of small distributors).

A random Oppo store, somewhere in a “small” Chinese town…

Samsung? While selling a wide range of devices ranging from entry-level devices to flagship phones on par with premium brands, they never really committed to a part or another. And Chinese consumers are susceptible to brand values. Who are you? What are you selling to us? Pure functionality? Aspirational lifestyle? Being ‘A Galaxy For Everyone’ is not a clear value proposition for anyone.

Apple and Huawei, the future-driven companies

Lastly, both Apple and Huawei seized the premium spot in Tier I and II cities. Big names, big stores, big prices, big ecosystem, big value, big brands. You don’t just buy a phone; you spend the afternoon in a luxury mall in a Huawei store.

Huawei Flagship Store on East Nanjing Road, Shanghai (I know…)

Samsung? Well, given the lack of consideration for the Chinese market in 2017, a range of products spreading in all directions, and a lack of decisiveness playing a specific role in China, they couldn’t really fight on the premium segment. Sure they have some amazing technologies (and generally try to beat Apple at introducing new things in the market — which Chinese consumers absolutely love in principle), but where’s the ecosystem? Where are the apps? Where is the Chinese-only exclusive content?

The default Samsung strategy

In the end, Samsung lost China for many different reasons. The core one is a corporate culture that is incapable of focus. Flagship phones? Yes, but with a thin commitment to this part of the market while you chase low-end sales. Accessible technology? Yes, but not enough commitment to developing a warm and extensive online platform of services. Chasing the last millions of new mobile phone owners in China? Yes, when do they visit Shanghai once a year… If they visit Shanghai.

If anything, Samsung is the poster child of these companies where no one can renounce market options, and everyone is trying to push in all directions while not achieving much in the end. Why? Because all these opposite directional pulls cancel each other.

There’s a precise description of such companies that want to be premium yet economically accessible, customer-driven, and super-efficient at processing everything. They are the stuck-in-the-middle corporations. Without strategic focus, they end up being run in default mode by their CFO.

Is Samsung dead?

Since I was introducing this article by reminding you how much China maps our future tech markets, it would be fair to ask if Samsung’s demise in China indicates its future worldwide demise as well?

I don’t think so.

I’m anything but optimistic for Samsung, mind you. But I also how they reacted in India and after losing China (which is still the world’s largest mobile market!). In India, where many Chinese companies are aggressively pushing in, Samsung now managed to focus on being the Nokia of old. Their strategy seems to show off their flagship phones (because they can) and essentially selling low-end mobiles with fair localization and some modicum of cultural awareness.

As for Q1, 2021, they’ve been holding their 20% market share quite well in India. Lessons learned? Maybe. But even in India, Samsung is under an ongoing squeeze between Xiaomi (26%), Vivo (16%), and Oppo (11%). And worse, I would bet that they don’t see them really coming in the US or Europe yet.

So we’ll see where all this goes (remember Nokia mobile market was wiped off in 2013 while being the #1 mobile phone seller on the planet — in units sold and with zero margins).

But if anything, Samsung should be a lesson for the rest of us in the energy sector, the car industry, or aerospace. China doesn’t just map the future of the mobile market. Pay attention. Now.