The Android Conundrum: How Should Brands Seize the Biggest Mobile Opportunity in China

There are few bigger Apple fan boys than brands. It can be argued that Apple single handedly allowed mobile marketing. The iPhone indeed put millions of powerful, mostly identical devices into the hand of people whose willingness to shell out hundreds of dollars for a phone alone made them high potential targets for most brands. It greatly facilitated mobile platform development by addressing the issue of device fragmentation and gave developers an easy channel for distribution and monetization with the app store. In short, the iOS eco-system is a marketer’s dream coming true.

Apple store

China was always a unique market for Apple. It was late to strike deals with Chinese telcos (and even today isn’t available to China Mobile subscribers), which impacted its distribution firepower, and until November 2011 the App store didn’t accept payment in Chinese yuans. Despite this, the iPhone quickly become a must have for upper middle class consumers and topped market share rankings in the early 2010s while Android was mostly the gear for low end users looking for a smartphone on the cheap.

We at Labbrand have always called out for brands to pay greater attention to Android. Back in our 2010 white paper about the future of mobile branding, we already anticipated Android being the major force behind the democratization of smartphones in China. Recent news about the Chinese smartphone market confirms this prediction and makes the question of how to deal with the rise of Android a pressing one for brands.

Figures alone paint a grim picture for iOS. Android’s market share in terms of sales has reached 90% (vs 4.8% for iOS devices) according to latest figures while its share of installed base stands at 72%. (vs 23.6% for iOS devices). This trend is reflected in the manufacturers’ market share ranking with Samsung sitting comfortably on top with a 17.6% market share followed by Lenovo and Yulong (aka. Coolpad) (12.3% and 12.2% respectively). Apple meanwhile is only 7th with a 4.8% market share.


While many cyclical factors explain this performance (Apple had not released a new product in a long time until the launch of iPhone 5C this week, a cheaper version of the iPhone to woo emerging market consumers), it is undeniable that Android is rising fast. Most importantly, Android is also going upmarket. From cheaper options for people unable to shell out 5000 Yuans for the iPhone, Android phones are now the first choice of many consumers. Step into any Starbucks in Shanghai and you will see many HTC one, Samsung Galaxy (4 and Note) and Mi2 where you previously saw a sea of iPhones. Nothing better represents this trend that Xiaomi, a local smartphone brand who borrowed quite a few pages from Apple’s playbook and has managed to create a large and passionate fan base. Its recent Weibo flash sale generated 1.3 million reservations for only 50.000 devices. In Q2 2013, Xiaomi reached a symbolic milestone by overtaking Apple in market share (5% vs 4.8%).


The rise of Android poses many challenges to brands. The most obvious of them is linked to app development. When developing for iOS, brands develop for one type of smartphone (the only difficulty being to manage the different screen sizes between the iPhone 4/4S and 5) which gives them much more liberty from a creative and feature point of view. They can also integrate deeply with native iOS apps such as Passbook or iCal. On the other side, the fragmentation of the Android scene means developers must ensure compatibility with dozens of types of devices, all of which have different specs and a different screen size. This makes development more complicated.

Different mobile phone compatibility issues

Then, distribution is also a major challenge in the Chinese Android eco-system. Most Android phones sold in China do not come with the Google Play store. Dozens of app stores such as Wandoujia, Hiapk or Xiaomi store have sprung up to fill the gap but none of them as a truly dominant position and offers the same “one stop” distribution service as the Apple app store or Google Play.


Because of these challenges (and also because many decision makers have yet to fully integrate the magnitude of the Android revolution), most brands are not giving Android the attention it deserves. iOs is still the go to platform for app development. A recent Labbrand study of the digital presence of major hotel brands in China conducted for a large international hospitality group revealed that Android apps, when they exist, suffer from poor design, bad language localization and offer experiences that are well below what is available on the iOS version.

So how can brands adapt to this new market reality and step up their Android game?

The first step is to understand what platforms clients are using. Macro figures about OS market share are not enough in China since there are major differences in digital behavior between different customer groups (based on age, geographic location, income etc…). Brands must conduct independent research to identify the iOS/Android split amongst their target audience and prioritize investment accordingly.

Then, brands should think beyond the app and invest more in their mobile websites. Not only is mobile browsing much more important in China than in the US and Europe but mobile websites offer the considerable advantage of being device agnostic in addition to being easier to access than mobile applications (since there is no need to download or install before being able to use). Here again brands should conduct research into what type of platform is preferred by customers. 

Brands should think beyond the app and invest more in their mobile websites. N

If app development is necessary, then brands must allocate the necessary budget to building Android apps that are more that a watered down version of the iOS version. They must then get distribution right by ensuring that their app is present on the main app stores and, most importantly, promoting it through all of their brand touch points. It is also necessary to facilitate direct download of the apk file (while very few customers install apps by manually downloading the apk file in western countries, this practice is widespread in China) through download links and QR codes.

All in all, we see that building a strong presence across mobile OSs will be key to brands’ success in the Chinese mobile space. Consistency is now the rule of the game and those who fail will only seize half the opportunity.



  • Kevin Gentle

    Director and Lead Strategist, MADJOR