Why Samsung still isn’t a Leader. Lessons for us all.

By Kailas Shastry

Here’s the thing about being a leader – you have to think like one, feel like one – only then can you act like one and eventually become one.

Leadership is more than a marketshare game
Leadership is more than a marketshare game

Samsung has become the world’s largest smartphone maker, measured by number of devices sold, as Apple’s market share dipped to a three year low. This should be good news for Samsung. But it isn’t yet time for the company to celebrate (for one, archrival Apple’s last two launches have been relatively lacklustre and that’s a significant reason for the market share as it stands, but this is another article for another day). Is this leadership a result of what the company does or is it despite what it does?

The problem with the Korean company is that it continues to think like the underdog and therefore will remain one, current market share notwithstanding, unless the company begins to feel differently about itself.

Leaders usually stick to a plan

When a leader does something big, people expect him / her to follow through. Now take the case of Samsung’s most recent flagship, the Note 3, priced as atrociously as it was, saw a straight 10%+  price cut within three weeks of launch [think: when was the last time Apple cut the price of its flagship model in any category, soon after launch?]. When a market leader launches a flagship, everything around it should mean something, it should exude confidence, give its customers an impression that it has figured the marketplace out… you get the drift. When the launch price is just a number that isn’t to be taken seriously (because invariably it’ll drop soon), the company is not much different from a trinket seller throwing random numbers at tourists as price for his wares. The Note 3’s isn’t an exception – Samsung’s done this with nearly all of its flagship launches in the recent past. A price cut soon after launch is indicative of poor response (which in turn is indicative of poor market research) or a case of milking the early adopters before rationalizing the price. Both cases are very un-leader-like.

The point here isn’t just about price revisions, but about a lack of sure footedness.

Leaders need to lead in something

Leaders, by definition cannot always copy or be me-toos, for, if they were, then they would be followers. Selling greater number of mobile phones may qualify the company as leader in analysts’ books, but to customers, leadership is more than number of units sold. One big problem for Samsung is Apple and that’s not because of the latter’s products. It is because Samsung is obsessed with Apple and doesn’t seem to be able to operate on its own. Think high school, and think wanna be macho boy taking on the alpha male by imitating him, time and again, no matter how pointless the original act is. That’s the Samsung story.

Apple does a gadget obscenity with a gold version, and guess what Samsung does? Couldn’t they have at least called the damned thing platinum or plutonium? No, they had to copy the overused moniker too.

Leaders should stand for something

A leader has to have their thing. Apple – great design (UI and exterior), feel good factor, features that just work. Nokia – rugged build, longevity, function over form, uncompromised basics (call and text). Blackberry – sheer brilliance of true push mail and at its time, ideal business device complete with encryption and what not.

What is Samsung’s special thing? Anybody find anything? When you play me-too and copy-cat, you have no identity and little following.

Leaders are leaders because there are followers

A leader invariably has to have a following – a fan base. When Apple launches something, many people buy it because it is an Apple. When Nokia (re)launched Lumias, fans bought them because they were Nokias, even though the platform was unproven. But nobody buys a Samsung because it is a Samsung, do they? They buy it because of Android and because it is cheaper. To repeat and restate, not because of brand association. Stretch that logic and you’ll see why the Indian rebadgers/resellers – Micromax, Lava, Karbonn – are so successful.

So, dear Samsung, you could give the following a try:

Understand that the devil is in the details. For instance, figure out why 4 inches on the iPhone works perfectly fine for most tasks and better it (not copy) instead of playing the big screen game – at some point, a phone becomes a tablet (you get that, don’t you, Samsung?). If it means more painstaking UI work and field testing, so be it. Similarly, do something about battery backup, even if it means hundreds of code tweaks to the kernel. Better the camera, not megapixel wise, but fundamentally – if Nokia can do that (with the 808 or the 1020), so can you, Samsung. Make your premium devices nicer to hold – if it means more man hours with your industrial designer, so be it (Apple not being sorry about plastic does not make it ok).

Take a cue from Apple’s customer service – offer on-spot replacement for premium devices. As for the rest, give a one business day assured service guarantee. Not the usual ‘sir, we will call you when it is ready’ nonsense. Do something to make people trust you and pay a premium for your products (relative to the much higher VFM Indian brands).

If you want to be a leader, Samsung, you and your consulting firms have a task cut out. As far as the copying game goes, clearly you aren’t the only one who can do it. The Indian rebadgers are already eating into your pie – it only takes some softening of their rough edges, and you may just end up on their plate. Think that won’t happen to you? At some point, RIM and HTC too thought they were infallible and you ate them for breakfast, didn’t you? Someone else may be thinking of you for lunch.

[About the AuthorKailas Shastry,  has been in the media & communications field for 8 years and is also a freelance photographer. Most recently he was Executive Editor at a consumer technology portal.]