By Daniel Thomas
An obscure smartphone maker based in France has done what some feared was impossible following the sale of Nokia‘s handset business: created a successful European challenger to tech giants Samsung and Apple.
Wiko is majority-owned by Chinese technology group Tinno Mobile and its phones are manufactured in China. But that fact is lost on many of the French buyers who have catapulted the brand into the top three handset vendors in the country, where it trades off its local status and “French touch”. It has also become a popular brand in Portugal and Italy.
Wiko has 8 per cent of the French market, according to Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, which measured “triple-digit growth across Europe” for the brand in the past year.
The company has plans to take the brand into countries where inroads have already been made by Chinese manufacturers such as Huawei and ZTE to bring down the price of smartphones.
It will start selling handsets in the UK this autumn, according to David Garcia, head of international development at Wiko, followed by parts of Africa such as the Ivory Coast and Senegal, the Middle East and Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand.
Wiko was established in February 2011 by French businessman Laurent Dahan. Its head office, design and marketing teams are based in Marseille. Mr Garcia said the heart of the group was in Europe, but there was considerable support from its Chinese partner.
“There is a European brain and atmosphere that would not be possible if we were based in China,” he said. “You need to be based in Europe to understand European needs.”
Even so, he admits that making phones would not be possible in Europe. “You can think in Europe but you have to make it somewhere else. You need your costs in China to stay competitive.”
The success of Wiko will at least provide some balance to the political hand wringing in Europe that followed the sale of Nokia’s handset to Microsoft. The sale was seen as part of a broader malaise in the European technology sector that has been outpaced by the rapid growth of rivals from the US and Asia.
There are other handset businesses in Europe, although these are generally more niche products such as the double sided e-reader smartphone being made by Russia’s Yotaphone and Vertu’s expensive luxury phones.
Wiko is competing with cheaper Asian brands on their own turf, with a marketing campaign focused on attracting younger customers and offering them equally low-priced devices. Wiko shipped 26m devices overall in 2013, mostly dual-Sim Android smartphones, and about 85 per cent of buyers were under 35 years old. “We are best for the value, which was new for a European brand,” said Mr Garcia.