Both Apple and Rahul talk cool stuff but badly need strategy to win India

Rahul Gandhi and Tim Cook
On Tuesday Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the new iPhone X, while on Monday Rahul Gandhi, the leader-in-waiting of the Indian National Congress was making a candid speech on the ups and downs of his political party in India. This writer has connected the two events and explained the lessons for both Cook and Rahul if they want to win India over. 

Two seemingly unconnected events in California made headlines on Tuesday, but on closer look, there is a connecting thread. At Cupertino in the Silicon Valley, Apple Inc’s CEO Tim Cook unveiled the tenth-anniversary version of the epoch-making iPhone. Earlier, only 88 kilometers north of Berkeley, the leader-in-waiting of the Indian National Congress was making a candid speech on the ups and downs of his political party back home.

Both these gentlemen have to reckon with a common truth: that it is not enough to say cool things. And both these men must find new tricks or ways to woo hundreds of millions of Indians because their old promises do not exactly work magic in a world where alternative brands are promising pretty much the same or more, and somehow seem more affordable to the ordinary Indian.

Let us stick (mostly) to Apple today. For a company that prides itself on making products that say “Designed In California,” even New York seems a distant call. Asian minds and hearts are a tougher business.  At Rs 89,000 upwards Apple’s new iPhone X has 3D facial recognition as its prime feature, but, as a careful analysis shows, Samsung’s Galaxy 8 variations come pretty close on most counts, and Android flagship phones in general offer significant value for money for comparable features. 
Brands that include Samsung,  OnePlus and Xiaomi and of late, even a born-again Nokia, are troubling Apple with their Android phones.

Read more: Full coverage: Apple iPhone X, iPhone 8 & 8 Plus, new Apple Watch, and more

Thus, Tim Cook is pretty much stuck with brand vanity and a couple of frills that won’t really touch the more budget-conscious millions, unless they want to caress a slightly older/lesser variant. That sounds awfully like the Congress party touting its role in the Indian Independence movement to win votes from those born after the “second Independence” of economic liberalisation in 1991, no?

The lesson for both Cook and Rahul are the same: “What got you here won’t get you there.”

Also, cool is not cool for those who may seek convenience. If the iPhone screen loses its edges, if the fingerprint reader goes away, and the new product seems less in some way (like doing away with the wires for the headset as it did last time), there are discomforting features packaged as fantastic – and the ordinary Indian may end up feeling like a vegetarian in a hip sushi bar.

The grim fact for Apple in India is that its old ware is not really selling and unless you are from pockets of South Delhi/Mumbai/Bangalore and Gurgaon, Apple is not really a part of your everyday conversations. And even in that aspect, the November 3 release (aimed for America’s holiday season) means for iPhone X a thoroughly missed opportunity in India.

This is not a Christmas Country, someone ought to tell Cook. Diwali day, the peak of the holiday shopping season in India, falls on October 19.  So, Tim Cook is kind of saying “We shop in Christmas only” -- much like Rahul Gandhi saying we-have-dynasties-and-that’s-how-things-work-in-India.

Try harder, folks.

Congress has lost Uttar Pradesh, once the jewel in its political crown, retaining only the Nehru-Gandhi family pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli.  And Apple’s iPhone SE is not selling well in India. Apple’s contract manufacturing partner, Taiwan-headquartered Winstrom, has facilities that are lying substantially idle in Bangalore.  

Apple’s need for tough bargaining with the Government of India to boost manufacturing in India and the current stalemate in negotiations to make the giant a marquee partner in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make In India” drive shows that there is no red carpet for the giant in India, but only an open ear.  

If Apple cares to win India, it must, like Rahul Gandhi, at least acknowledge that a “certain arrogance” had crept into its Cupertino campus.

In America, consumerism is spirituality, Apple is a religion, Steve Jobs its Jesus Christ and Tim Cook its main apostle. Not in India, where Android variants seem to have their own common multi-brand Sanatan Dharma. Cook has to turn more creative to woo India.

So what possibly can Apple do? For one, it could pick a leaf out of the other big icon of Americanised global capitalism: McDonald’s. While the fast-food chain may have franchise partner problems in India, its growth story as a value-cum-hygiene story is a case study for business school students. Innovations to match local culture might just help. Is an AlooTikki variant of the iPhone possible, metaphorically speaking?

As for Rahul Gandhi and Congress, they may need more than coalition jugaad. That’s another story.

(The author is a senior journalist and editor who has worked for Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent media entrepreneur, consultant and columnist. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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