A New Year’s Resolution for OEMs: Please fix your smartphone branding
A phone’s branding is essential. Potential smartphone buyers don’t usually have the time to go through a spec sheet to see how one particular phone is better than the other. We’re drifting back into the era where almost all smartphones look exactly the same: glass and metal sandwiches (or sometimes glass on plastic) with two, three, or four cameras mounted on the back, and a display with either a notch or a hole-punch camera. This is where phone branding and marketing come into play, which, unfortunately, have become increasingly more confusing over the past year.
A keen-eyed enthusiast might be able to tell phones apart pretty easily: a smartphone’s spec sheet shows us what SoC a phone has, how much RAM and storage it has, and gives us a basic idea of how good the cameras will perform. An average smartphone buyer, though, will only tell them apart because of the superficial stuff: how it looks, the company that made it, and, of course, how it’s being branded, marketed, and sold. For reasons that don’t entirely appear obvious to us, though, smartphone OEMs have been quite intent on confusing consumers with overlapping names, disoriented product lines, and chaotic Ultra Plus Pro Max successors.
Most, if not all, Android OEMs have been guilty of doing this at some point. And this confusing mess of names is a lot worse than you’d think, especially if you look at the lower end of the smartphone spectrum, where phones are way cheaper and fancy features are not a priority. Sometimes, a smartphone will be sold with a certain name in a certain country, only for the manufacturer to release that same phone under a different name in a different country, further confusing people who try to look up basic information online. Heck, a lot of my non-tech-savvy friends have complained to me about this.
Today, we’ll look at some examples of OEMs that need to get their stuff together when it comes to branding. Then, we’ll look at how they can improve by looking at companies that are getting branding right (at least for the most part.)
Who’s getting it wrong?
Xiaomi’s naming convention used to be pretty simple. We had budget-conscious smartphones under the Redmi line, and those were categorized pretty easily: You had the series’ number that indicates which generation your phone belongs to, and then you had the phones themselves which were divided by a series of prefixes and suffixes. The A suffix is the cheapest one out of the barrel, the C suffix is one tier above that, and no suffix is one tier above that. And then, we have the Redmi Note and Note Pro series, which are the more premium ones out of the brand. So for the Redmi 9 series, we’d have the Redmi 9A, the Redmi 9C, the Redmi 9, the Redmi Note 9, and the Redmi Note 9 Pro, ordered from the lowest-end to the highest-end. The Mi and the discontinued Mi Note lineups would then sit above this as the more premium offerings. Pretty easy, right?
Well, it’s not that simple. That’s because we haven’t looked at regional variants yet.
The worst offenders here are Xiaomi’s smartphones sold in India. If you ask for a Redmi 9 in India and a Redmi 9 in Europe, you’ll get two entirely different phones. The Redmi 9 in India (and also the POCO C3 with some changes) is actually known as the Redmi 9C in the rest of the world, and there are no phones sold in India under the Redmi 9C branding. If you’re in India and looking for the phone that’s sold as the Redmi 9 in the rest of the world, you’ll discover that it’s called the Redmi 9 Prime in India.
And it just gets worse from thereon. While the Redmi Note 9 is the same both in and outside of India, the Pro variants get more confusing. In India, you have the Redmi Note 9 Pro and the Redmi Note 9 Pro Max. Both phones are very similar, but they have a few key differences between them. The Pro Max is the slightly higher-end of the duo with better cameras and storage options. That differentiation makes sense…but then you find out that these same phones are branded entirely differently overseas. The Indian Redmi Note 9 Pro is actually sold in Europe as the Redmi Note 9S, while the Indian Redmi Note 9 Pro Max is sold in Europe as the Redmi Note 9 Pro.
For a more recent, non-Indian example, there’s the Redmi Note 9 5G lineup in China (seriously guys, what even went wrong with the 9 series?). The Redmi Note 9 5G and the Redmi Note 9 Pro 5G might seem just like 5G-capable variants of the already existing devices, but they’re completely different devices that share little similarity with the phones we know of as the Redmi Note 9 and the Redmi Note 9 Pro. The Note 9 5G and Note 9 Pro 5G even have processors from different SoC vendors! Further complicating things is the Redmi Note 9 4G (the original Redmi Note 9 was already 4G but it didn’t have the “4G” suffix on it) was powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 662. And then, we’ve learned that Xiaomi is planning to release the Chinese Redmi Note 9 Pro 5G as the “Mi 10i” in India, as if the whole thing was not complicated enough as it is.
And this isn’t just Redmi. Xiaomi does this kind of stuff all across the board, even crossing between their own markets as well. Let’s look at the POCO sub-brand for more examples of this. The POCO C3, the POCO M2, and the POCO M2 Pro, all sold in India, have no significant differences to the phones that are already sold in India as the Redmi 9, the Redmi 9 Prime, and the Redmi Note 9 Pro respectively. This isn’t stopping them from selling seemingly identical phones with different branding within the exact same market. I looked at the spec sheets for all of the POCO phones and their Redmi counterparts trying to find differences, and I only found minor differences, if any. POCO insists on its brand independence but also accepts that it shares certain resources related to supply chain and R&D with Xiaomi, which explains the similarities in devices.
I could talk about Xiaomi for the entire article, and I’m already skipping over a lot of other Xiaomi phones with confusing names and confusing rebrands, but there are more offenders on my list (albeit Xiaomi is by far one of the worst). I’m just going to leave you with Mishaal’s tweet on this topic because it sums up the whole thing pretty well.
I have given up on trying to wrap my head around Xiaomi's naming scheme. If you thought their phone names were difficult to parse after watching @TechAltar's video, oooh boy you don't know the half of it. pic.twitter.com/1PAhFC9TMu
— Mishaal Rahman (@MishaalRahman) November 30, 2020
And here’s a diagram we made that tries to sum up the confusing mess as easily as possible. Note that the diagram below may not be visible on AMP, so be sure to open it from the full article on desktop. Also, note that this is not even close to encapsulating the full lineup from Xiaomi. It’s restricted to devices with the “9” moniker (and their related devices) and skips out on other series with their own dozens of spin-offs such as the Mi 10 and Redmi K30.
I’m a Xiaomi fan as much as the next guy. But come on, it shouldn’t be that hard to have your branding be consistent between different markets if other companies manage to pull it off.
Realme is also no stranger to confusing naming schemes. They take a specific phone and proceed to sell it under different names in different markets. Sometimes, it even crosses brands with OPPO.
Let’s take the Realme V5 5G as an example here. This device features a MediaTek Dimensity 720 5G processor with up to 8 GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, a 5,000 mAh battery, a quad rear 48MP camera setup with ultrawide, depth, and macro sensors, and a 1080p Full HD+ display with a 90Hz refresh rate and a 20:9 aspect ratio. So for the most part, a very standard mid-range device with 5G support.
You don’t have to go very far to find this phone under another name. The Realme V5 5G is also sold as the OPPO K7x—in the very same market of China. The OPPO K7x is the same phone but rebadged under the OPPO brand.
There’s also the Realme 7 lineup, and this one is a bit confusing, too. Regular users might be led into thinking the Realme 7 5G, which recently launched, is actually just the Realme 7 but with 5G support, and this is mostly true. The Realme 7 has MediaTek’s Helio G95 processor, while the 5G phone has MediaTek’s Dimensity 800U. Other than that, the Realme 7 5G has a 120Hz display and a 48MP main camera, while the Realme 7 has a 90Hz display and a 64MP main camera (or 48MP depending on the market).
Then we have the Realme 7 Pro, which doesn’t have 5G as it has a Snapdragon 720G processor, so it performs worse than the Dimensity 800U in the 7 5G, has a slightly smaller display, a 60Hz AMOLED panel instead of a 120Hz LCD, and a smaller battery rated at 4,500 mAh. It does compensate with a 64MP main camera and faster 65W charging. For all intents and purposes, the non-Pro and Pro lineups are separate enough to justify being entirely independent of each other, and there’s very little in terms of similarity to signify that one is a definite upgrade over the other, as the moniker might suggest. Then there is also the Realme 7 Pro Special Edition and Realme 7i, and we’ll leave you to guess where both of these are placed within the portfolio.
When given a spec sheet, a lot of users might prefer the Realme 7 5G over both the regular 4G and the 4G Pro model, but that isn’t made abundantly clear simply by the branding. The name here only gives away that the phone has 5G and still implies the Realme 7 Pro is better. So what gives? We don’t really know.
LG is also sometimes guilty of playing mind games with naming and branding, and this can be observed on devices as recent as the LG Velvet. The LG Velvet came out this year to replace the G series of smartphones, aiming to provide a premium experience without the premium cost that the Snapdragon 865 commanded. But while it didn’t go for the Snapdragon 865, what ended up coming out is pretty confusing.
The LG Velvet is actually available in three flavors: a 4G version and two 5G versions. The first 5G version was, evidently, the star of the show, featuring Qualcomm’s first 5G mid-range chipset, the Snapdragon 765G. But those that didn’t need 5G were treated instead by the Snapdragon 845, an almost 3-year-old chipset that was featured in 2018’s LG G7 ThinQ. Both devices performed pretty much the same as the Snapdragon 765G is roughly equivalent in raw horsepower to the Snapdragon 845, but there’s a downside, and it’s the fact that the Snapdragon 845 is much older. It’s not as power-efficient and long-term vendor support could be a problem down the line. Then finally there’s the T-Mobile LG Velvet 5G, which comes with the MediaTek Dimensity 1000C, an entirely different processor from a Qualcomm competitor.
The LG V-series is still alive as higher-end devices aimed at spec-conscious consumers, but LG’s release cycle has changed, with the company previously releasing a new V-series phone near the end of the year (to compete with Samsung’s Galaxy Note line) but now releasing them around the start of the year. According to a few rumors, though, the LG V-series might meet the same fate as the LG G-series as LG is focusing on more mid-range 5G products. There is supposedly a true flagship (and a rollable) in the works for next year, though who knows whether the V-series naming scheme will stick around in 2021.
So yes, LG is clearly undergoing a major transition in their internal organization within their smartphone division, and their traditional smartphone branding, as we know it, might not be around next year. And yeah, you could attribute some of these branding issues to this weird transitional period. But right now, it’s just confusing for users, their phones aren’t really cheaper or offer better value (which doesn’t help the fact that they’re confusing), and I don’t see things getting much better next year. LG is still definitely one of many companies that need to get it together.
I was rooting for OnePlus here because they were so close to getting naming right, at least until last year. Now, to be clear, unlike other companies, they haven’t (yet) bitten the bullet on some of the other companies’ sins, such as different branding for the same phone in different markets (please keep it up, guys). But there’s a new lineup of OnePlus smartphones that broke everything: the new mid-range Nord devices.
The first, OG OnePlus Nord phone was fine. It’s a very well-performing mid-range device powered by the Snapdragon 765G, up to 12 GB of RAM, and more. It was all about bringing the OnePlus smartphone experience to the mid-range, and it certainly did the job. But then, OnePlus announced two more entries in the Nord lineup: the Nord N10 5G and the Nord N100. These two smartphones set the bar, and obviously price point, even lower.
But these phones also do away with a lot of the stuff that we normally love about OnePlus phones. We have no alert slider on the side, we have no AMOLED panel, and the specifications, while not bad, do leave a lot to be desired, especially in the Nord N100 which has a Snapdragon 460 and a 60Hz panel. Perhaps the worst thing about them, though, is the fact that their branding doesn’t really make clear which device is better and which is worse. I get what they’re trying to do: the base Nord is the highest-end one, the N10 goes in the middle, and the N100 goes at the bottom. But this might not be immediately clear to an average user, who might get confused by this branding.
It’s only set to get worse down the line, though. Not only because we need to factor in mid-range lineups as well, but also because the flagship lineup is also set to get a little bit more complicated as well if the rumors on the OnePlus 9 lineup hold true. Why you might ask? Because there’s set to be three phones: the OnePlus 9, the OnePlus 9 Pro, and a new, probably lower end, OnePlus 9E. This last model could either be a mid-range variant of the flagship devices or the company’s long-awaited return to the flagship-killer space where players like Samsung have already dipped their toes with phones like the Galaxy S20 FE. But then, it’s already confusing enough when having both the Pro phones as well as the mid-gen “T” refreshes, as we will probably see an OnePlus 9T before the end of the year. (For what it’s worth, the latest rumor suggests the OnePlus “9E” could be called the OnePlus 9 Lite, and it’ll feature specs similar to last year’s 8T.)
And then we’re not even sure what OnePlus is planning to name their mid-range phones for next year. N20? N200? Something entirely different? I get that these devices are part of the company’s efforts to diversify themselves from just flagship-grade phones. But given that future mid-range OnePlus smartphones through 2021 aren’t set to look much better, we need to do better here with branding. And the same goes for flagship smartphones.
OPPO also gets a spot in this list because of the Reno lineup. Not only because the naming for the phones in it is confusing, but because they’re also pulling a Xiaomi (and somehow doing it even worse than Xiaomi) with regional variants of smartphones. While the first Reno and Reno 2 lineups were pretty sensible, the Reno 3 is where things started going off the rails. The Reno 3 and Reno 3 Pro that were released in China and the ones that were released in the rest of the world were actually completely different devices that were not even comparable in terms of performance. While the Chinese variant launched with a Snapdragon 765G and 5G support, the Reno 3 Pro that the rest of the world got was powered by the MediaTek Helio P95. The Reno 3’s Chinese variants would then go on to launch internationally as part of the OPPO Find X2 lineup.
OPPO then repeated this act with the Reno 3’s successors. With the Reno4 lineup, they launched the device with 5G capabilities and then launched a 4G version that’s an entirely different device yet looks very much like the same phone from the outside. While this is more of a regional issue, as is the case with Xiaomi devices, what can happen here is that people could actually look it up, buy it, and then realize they messed up their research because of the rebranding hodge-podge mishmash with names.
Which companies are getting it right?
Samsung (for the most part)
Samsung has, surprisingly, done pretty well in keeping its flagship and mid-range brandings sensible. Previously, their naming scheme was all over the place, further cluttered by carrier-branded mid-range devices (those still exist, but they’re way less prominent than they were before). Several mid-range phone lineups with no apparent differences between them were just some of the worst offenders back then. Now, though, it has gotten much better, all things considered.
There’s the Galaxy S line, which is comprised of their mainstream, normal, average flagships, the Galaxy Note line, which is aimed at pro consumers and enthusiasts and features things like the landmark S Pen, and the Galaxy Z line, which is fairly new but is comprised of the company’s foldable phones, the Fold and the Flip. All of these are flagship phones, and they’re commonly marked with the same generational number bump as well as suffixes such as Ultra, 5G, and Plus to differentiate between their many entries. Although, Samsung has added “FE” to the mix, which doesn’t really tell you much about where the device slots into the lineup.
But Samsung releases far more mid-range and budget phones, and somehow they manage to keep it relatively straightforward. Their mid-range Galaxy A line starts from the current lowest-end device—the Galaxy A01—and it goes up in increments of 10 as the device’s specs get better, going all the way up to the Galaxy A71. The second number represents the device’s generation, so for example, this year’s series is the Galaxy Ax1 series, and next year’s smartphones will be branded as the Galaxy Ax2.
There are a few bad apples that are spoiling Samsung’s lineup, though. Sometimes, the company will feel like launching mid-generation “S” refreshes to these mid-range devices, as we’ve seen with the Galaxy M30s, the Galaxy M31s, or the Galaxy A50s. And I’m missing two more confusing mid-range lineups. The Galaxy M series is also comprised of budget smartphones, and the naming works the same way as the A-series, but it’s only available online. There’s also the F series, which follows the same trend and naming scheme. The line between these series is kind of blurry, with nothing really differentiating them to the average consumer other than the fact that some of these phones are online-only and region-specific. They all look similar, are priced similarly, and have more or less the same specifications.
I’m still classifying Samsung as a good fish, simply because they do have one of the cleanest naming lineups in the industry considering the sheer size of their device portfolio. My opinion might change once the Galaxy S21 lineup comes out because jumping from the S10 to the S20 (instead of calling it the S11) and then going to the S21 instead of going up in increments of 10 is probably one of the more bizarre marketing decisions I’ve seen in a while.
Apple has always been pretty good as far as its smartphone branding goes. They’ve only ever done flagship-grade devices, for what it’s worth, so they don’t have to mess around with multiple smartphone lineups and series (and the few times they’ve done it, it’s been mostly flawless), but their branding isn’t confusing at all. We just need to look at this year’s iPhone 12 series for an example of this.
This lineup is comprised of 4 devices: the iPhone 12 Mini, the iPhone 12, the iPhone 12 Pro, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max. And even if you don’t know what these phones are about, you can probably guess where they rank. The iPhone 12 Mini is the smaller model, the iPhone 12 is the regular model, the iPhone 12 Pro is the slightly upgraded model, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the large model with slightly upgraded specs. The branding does a good job at helping consumers tell the devices apart.
The few times Apple has deviated from their main series has been in the form of the iPhone SE, which has so far seen 2 incarnations. The 1st generation one launched in 2017 was pretty much an iPhone 6s (in terms of internals) in the smaller 4-inch form factor of the iPhone 5/5s. The 2nd generation one launched in 2020 follows sort of the same line, carrying iPhone 11 specifications over to the same body and form factor of the iPhone 6/6s/7/8.
Nokia/HMD Global (sometimes)
If you follow Nokia’s naming scheme closely, you’d probably find it to be pretty straightforward. It follows a similar naming scheme to what we’ve seen with mid-range Samsung devices: there are two numbers, with the first one representing the device’s range and the second one representing the generation. So the Nokia 7.2, for example, is part of the Nokia 7 series and is a 2nd generation device. And… well, that’s pretty much it. They make devices from the low end of the spectrum running Android Go, all the way up to premium mid-range and even flagship phones, and they all feature this naming across the board.
Note how I said sometimes, though. This is because they often go out of this naming scheme when partnering with carriers and MVNos. There is, for example, a Nokia 2 V Tella at the low end of the spectrum, with the Nokia 2.3 and the Nokia 2.4 also existing, so you’re left to wonder where the carrier device fits in. There’s not a lot that they can do in this regard, though, because carrier-specific cheap devices always have hideous names no matter who’s actually making them. Their main smartphone lineup is, however, cohesive enough to gain a spot in this list. So, kudos to HMD Global here.
The Bottom Line
I’ll just put it bluntly. Other than Apple (and it’s hard for me to say that because I’m not even remotely the biggest Apple fan out there), I can’t say that any OEM is actually doing things right when it comes to branding. And even Samsung and Nokia, which I added to the “nice list” because they’re the “least bad”, have some bad apples that spoil the consistency of the whole lineup. Because every time they’re getting close to actually getting it right, they throw sensibility out of the gate with a peculiar device model or two.
I get that this can probably be hard to pull off if you’re a big company. For example, those carrier devices that are ultra-cheap and ultra low-end? You probably can’t do much with regards to those because it’s often the carrier that has a big say in the branding and overall product. But there are problems that companies can, and should, address. Like, for example, the mess that Xiaomi is going through with their device lineup indicates either some serious lack of foresight or the company considers the Redmi and Redmi Note branding so strong that it tacks them onto every phone without branching out to more lines. And the latter might just be true, considering the lack of popularity of the Redmi Y series and the Redmi A series (though the phones in the Redmi A series had their fair share of issues).
Wouldn’t it be amazing if the “Redmi Note 9 Pro” wasn’t actually 3 different phones? Or that one single device wouldn’t have 3 different names, often even overlapping between their different smartphone brands (Mi, Redmi, and POCO)? Imagine this: Xiaomi makes a phone, slaps a name on it, and then it’s sold under that same name everywhere. This is something other companies can and have done, so why can’t Xiaomi? And under that same note, why can’t OPPO’s Reno 4 Pro be the same Reno 4 Pro everywhere? Why does it have to be two or three different phones?
More than just a rant, I’m hoping that this article serves to highlight this issue a little better. Branding decisions are not spur-of-the-moment accidents — they are carefully considered and multiple options weighed before a device gets called what it gets called. A large part of it is goodwill and reputation in the particular market, and different lineups may enjoy different levels of goodwill in different markets. But there’s bound to be a cleaner solution to making device lineups clearer to both consumers and to enthusiasts. Because right now, the enthusiasts are finding it difficult to keep track, so you can just about imagine what the average consumer is going through when researching online.
So please, please, get it together. Or at least try. Let this be your resolution for 2021.