The not-so-smart phone wars

Originally published in Brand Equity (The Economic Times), February 5, 2020.

When Manu Kumar Jain (Managing Director of Xiaomi India) Madhav Sheth (Realme India CEO) and C Manmohan (General Manager of POCO India) stumble upon each other in an event, how do you think they would behave?

Here’s a possibility.

Manu would tell Madhav, “You are a copy-cat brand!”. Madhav would retort, “Basic dignity and ethics should be maintained no matter how insecure you are of your competitor’s growth!”. And Manmohan would add, “Hilarious! A real copy-cat brand that copied almost everything is giving lecture”!

Sounds impossible that the three leaders of three leading smartphone brands would behave like school children around each other? Well, it’s actually worse – not only are they saying this to each other, but they are also taking the stage in the same event and shouting this out to everyone else in the audience! You see, they are saying all this on Twitter, to each other and to all their followers, which, on last count, is 35,000+ for Manmohan, 165,000+ for Madhav and a whopping 268,000+ for Manu!

One way to justify all this is to say that this is the new way of doing business! Attacking rivals head-on and publicly, in a highly competitive market, is a way to garner attention. Riding on that heady attention is akin to riding a wild bull, but that’s the need for today’s cut-throat markets. This is visible in politics as well.

Another way to look at this: this is all terrible form to play out in public. This used to be reserved for private discussions earlier. Now, it’s all spilling into a public spectacle. Maybe they all learn from TV News channels which have made mudslinging an art form and as viewers (humans!), we all seem to love watching dirty linen being washed in public as long as it is not ours.

Beyond these two perspectives, there is a larger problem – that we do not see how much our social media activities mirror real life (which is why I started with the offline equivalent of their online activities). These CEOs may not say these things while engaging with a journalist, because they would be guided by an alert communications person seated next to them. But, while on Twitter, it’s them and their audience, and at a visceral level, they have a go.

Another common blunder that most people don’t even consciously think about plays out on Twitter too: two people may be talking to each other (of course, since this is on Twitter, it is not direct messaging between those two individuals, but them talking in the middle of a busy street). Suddenly, one of them quote-tweets the other’s tweet. How does this look in the offline sense? He turns away from the other person and literally shouts out what he wanted to say to everyone (of which the other person is one). Manmohan is doing exactly that to Madhav, instead of simply replying to him and engaging. It’s a public performance. Offline, it is considered rude, but online, we don’t even realize how terrible it seems.

And when they find it acceptable to attack others, the viewers/ audience/ bystanders would be assuming that they (and their brands) are open for attacks too. “Oh, he can do that to others, so I guess he’s fair game too!”. The older version of that is “negativity begets negativity”. Both positivity and negativity are contagious, for different reasons. It’s usually a choice. And well-known, well-respected and successful leaders egging each other in public is either the new way of competing… or one of the many ugly side-effects of social media.

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