Top Xiaomi executive shakes off ‘copycat’ label amid rapid global expansion

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 May, 2015, 11:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2017, 4:35pm

Smartphone company Xiaomi is shaking off the “copycat” stigma that has long plagued Chinese brands, as positive reviews internationally have allowed the firm to shed that negative label, according to a Xiaomi top executive.

Hugo Barra, vice-president of Xiaomi Global, pinpointed the launch of the Mi Note in January this year as the time when the narrative – of Chinese brands only producing copies – changed.

Barra said the Mi Note had drawn appreciative reviews from big names, such as former Walll Street Journal technology columnist Walt Mossberg, one of the most influential technology product reviewers who later founded the independent tech news site Re/code, for both its design and performance.

“Walt Mossberg just did a two-week review of a product that’s never going to be launched in the US, he actually went that far,” Barra told the South China Morning Post in a recent interview.

“He himself and many others that have looked at the device have said this is such a unique statement from Xiaomi,” Barra said. “And that single-handedly quieted down that whole narrative of copycat, because people are finally looking at our products closely enough.”

Barra sees the upcoming launch of its online marketplace in the United States, offering accessories from battery packs to headphones, as a way to build brand awareness in the US.

The former Google executive, who was snapped up by Xiaomi’s founder and chief Lei Jun nearly two years ago to help him expand Xiaomi’s presence on the world stage, praised the Chinese tech industry for its increased innovation in areas including design.

These innovations have gradually erased the association that Chinese brands produce knock-offs of Western technologies.

“I think in general the Chinese tech industry has managed to disprove a lot of that older narrative because there’s just such a tremendous amount of innovation coming out of China now,” Barra said.

Xiaomi sold more than 61 million handsets last year, up 227 per cent on the previous year as the mainland Chinese market saw an 8 per cent drop in overall sales.

The company saw 74.3 billion yuan (HK$94 billion) in pre-tax sales last year, up 135 per cent on 2013.

In April, Xiaomi held its first launch outside China as it announced the Mi 4i smart phone in India.

The phone is the first Xiaomi offering to be designed for the international market, but Barra clearly noted that this new approach did not exclude the Chinese home market.

“It’s designed with all of our global needs in mind, which means it’s a product that can fly, do very, very well in any market,” Barra said. “It used to be the case that people would say you always launch the products in China first and then you bring them here, and it’s no longer the case. We care about other markets equally.”

Barra said the company has not set targets for Hong Kong Mi 4i sales, but it expects a good response from the city’s Xiaomi fans.

“The Mi 4i is the first flagship that we’ve [launched] here for quite some time, so there’s been a huge expectation from our fans in Hong Kong that we’re finally delivering,” Barra said.

Strong sales of Apple’s iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 plus in China have not deterred Xiaomi as the company took the number one spot in the country last year.

“We’re now building world-class products that can stand up on their own against anything you compare them against, even Apple,” Barra said.