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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mobile Phones in China: Local Rates, Fashion, and Fakes

I've done a significant amount of research into mobile phone use in China -- to improve existing mobile products & services, to innovate new ones, and to find ways to better market them to potential users.  In this post, I'll introduce at a general level some of the key themes in what I've discovered during my independent explorations across China by highlighting several illustrative examples.  What I'll share in this post is just the tip of the iceberg for a host of interesting topics to delve into, is focused on Chinese youth, and is not intended to be all encompassing.  I'll share more themes, examples, and thoughts on this topic in later posts as well.

To begin, what I learned about a female student in Jilin, Jilin Province (see here for some scenes from Jilin) highlighted at least two key aspects of how mobiles phones are used and chosen by some in China.

girl with two mobile phones

If you look closely at the photo of the student above, you'll notice she has two mobile phones -- one in her hand that she is using at the moment and another hanging from her neck.

Why two mobile phones?  One reason is that she grew up in Hunan Province, far away from where she was going to school in Jilin.  She considered the roaming fees for using her Hunan phone number in Jilin to be too high but but she still wanted to keep her Hunan number since she didn't want to lose contact with people and would be returning there regularly.  Therefore, she needed two different phones numbers, meaning two different SIM cards, so she could get local rates whether she was at home or at school.  One of her phones had a Hunan phone number, the other a Jilin phone number.  Using multiple SIM cards to get local rates is common in China and it is not unusual to find locally designed phones with the capability to hold multiple SIM cards (note: getting local rates is not the only reason some in China desire multiple SIM cards).  However, in this case the girl's older mobile phone didn't have that capability and neither did her newer phone.

Did the savings of not having to pay roaming fees more than offset the cost of an additional phone?  Well, that calculation may not have been entirely critical since there was also another important reason she had two phones.

Her older phone's paint and camera were chipped prior to her departing Hunan for college:

mobile phone with chipped paint

mobile phone with chipped camera lens

It was still functional in most ways, but to her it was unacceptable in large part due to a key concern.


As seen on her "Fashion Chic" shoes, fashion was very important to her.  Her scratched up phone was simply unacceptable from this standpoint.  So, while she was still in Hunan she bought a shiny new phone made by the Chinese company Oppo:

shiny new Oppo brand phone

In China, it is common for many youth (and others as well) to get prepaid SIM cards and purchasing them is a simple process -- no sign up or name registration required for regular usage.  So, when she arrived in Jilin she bought a new SIM card with a local number and put it in her old phone since the new phone already had the SIM card for her Hunan number in it.  Despite the fact that she uses the old phone far more often while at school, it is the new Oppo phone that she hangs from neck.  Hanging the phone from her neck is about fashion, not functionality.

While fashion can play an important role in many countries around the world, its impact in China is particularly striking in the mobile phone domain.  Many are willing to spend a large proportion of their income to purchase a mobile phone, sometimes saving up at least several months of their full salary, out of concerns related to fashion and image.  For many people in China, their mobile phone will be the most expensive and openly visible item that can be with them many places they go -- like a car for many people in the US.  While hanging a mobile phone around ones neck isn't as common in China as it used to be, there remain many opportunities for it to be visible.

Fashion and image aren't only important for many female youth in China but many males as well.  For example, this student at a university in Wenzhou, Zhejiang was also concerned about fashion and image:

male student in black jacket holding mobile phone

And he was willing to spend a lot of money for his BlackBerry phone:

BlackBerry Phone

This isn't to say that fashion and image are the only factors that go into choosing a mobile phone for such people, just that they can be primary factors in the choice.

However, there are many more youth in China that can't afford genuine fashionable foreign brand phones, even if they want one.  While some of them choose a local brand, others choose another common option in China: fakes.

For example, at this store in Chongzuo, Guangxi which sold mobile phones that were (supposedly) genuine:

Mobile phone store in Chongzuo, Guangxi
Mobile phone store in Chongzuo, Guangxi

Many of its employees had obvious fakes such as this one:

fake Sony Ericsson mobile phone with words Snoy Eriosscn
"Snoy Eriosscn" mobile phone

Some fakes aren't as obvious as the one above -- there are a range of "qualities".  Regardless, the usual motivation to buy a fake is the lower price.  But why not buy an equally priced Chinese brand phone?  For an example capturing one of the key reasons, here is a girl in Shuolong, Guangxi, a small village a few hours away from Chongzuo:

girl in Shuolong, Guangxi

She too made a variety of fashion choices:

girls pair of bracelets

But fashion wasn't a concern in her previous choice of a mobile phone:

locally made Photoner mobile phone

Nor was it for the new phone she soon planned to purchase.  Her dream phone was a Nokia.  Not because of any concerns regarding fashion but because she believed it would be very reliable and rugged.  However, a real Nokia phone was not a possibility given their relatively high price so she wanted to get a fake Nokia phone since it would be cheaper.

Unlike many other examples I've seen of purchasing fake products, her choice of a fake Nokia versus other relatively inexpensive options did not appear to be driven by how others around her would perceive the product.  It was about her own internal expectations for what the product could provide to her based on its name - even though it would be a fake.  This distinction is critical in gaining a deeper understanding about how brands and fake products are perceived by some in China.  I'll share more in later posts about this and other issues regarding fake products.

These are just some of the highlights of what I've found.  I'd be curious to hear any of your thoughts on the above examples -- they certainly provide more to discuss than I am able to cover in this single post.  Again, more on these and related topics later.

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