Playing it Smart
Forbes India|January 29, 2021
India has emerged as the biggest smartphone market for Samsung, 25 years after it entered the country. it now needs to keep the Chinese rivals at bay
RAJIV SINGH

In three years, ecstasy turned into despair for Asim Warsi. In 2005, when he quit Nokia to join Samsung as marketing head, the South Korean conglomerate was hot on the heels of the Finnish handset major. Within 10 years of starting operations in India, the consumer electronics major had garnered a 17 percent share of the handset market, and was the second biggest after Nokia. “It was a hungry challenger,” recalls Warsi, who was then 32 and confident of propelling the brand to pole position.

Three years later, Samsung had slipped to a distant fourth in the pecking order. “At 2.7 percent market share, you are actually a no-brand,” he says. Warsi, who had his first tryst with a rock-bottom moment in his career, realised something drastic had to be done. “We needed to systematically and structurally change everything.”

Inspiration came from Samsung Chairman Lee Kun Hee, who had given a clarion call in 1993 to reboot. Fed up by the abysmal quality of products, he had called for a sweeping change in the way the company worked. “Change everything but your wife and children,” he had said. Two years later, Lee exhibited his intolerance for poor quality, when he reportedly ordered 150,000 phones, fax machines and other devices to be burned in front of employees at a factory in Gumi, South Korea.

In 2008, Warsi and his team put into practice what the global boss had preached. No, they didn’t burn mobile phones, but rebooted the company. The gambit worked, but only for a while. In 2012, Samsung toppled Nokia to become the biggest in India but, after two years, came another shock. Indian handset maker Micromax pipped Samsung in the second quarter of 2014; it posted a 16.6 percent handset market share, while Samsung had 14.4 percent. Although Samsung has a lead in smartphones—25.2 percent— Micromax was fast catching up, with 19.1 percent. It was déjà vu for Warsi, and little did he know that he would face more such moments over the next few years.

In 2018, Samsung’s six-year reign at the top was ended by Chinese rival Xiaomi, which disrupted its offline approach by rolling out an aggressive online play. Two years later, another Chinese brand—Vivo—added to the challenge. In the last quarter of 2019, it pipped Samsung to become secondbiggest in smartphone rankings. By now Warsi, who was tasked to grow the online business in 2018, had seen enough peaks and troughs to know it was a matter of time before the brand rose again, like a Phoenix.

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