April 16, 2021

Don’t get fooled by fancy camera brand names used by Chinese OEMs

There seems to be a growing trend among Chinese smartphone OEMs to slap the brand of a renowned camera maker on the back of their phones, implying to prospective buyers that the smartphone they’re about to purchase boasts a camera setup that was designed and built by the world’s top experts in the field. In reality, these camera-centric partnerships between Chinese OEMs and camera experts exist primarily for marketing and hype-generating purposes.

Take Huawei for example and its already-popular Leica-branded mobile camera systems. Huawei’s flagships perform very well in terms of mobile photography — sometimes arguably better than Samsung’s premium phones — but this might have less to do with Leica’s expertise than you might think. The so-called Leica lenses aren’t manufactured by Leica because the company doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure to build smartphone camera lenses. Instead, those Leica-branded lenses are manufactured by a third-party following the designs established by Huawei and Leica.

OnePlus is now following a similar strategy and has partnered with Hasselblad for the OnePlus 9 series. Hasselblad is a Swedish manufacturer of cameras, lenses, and scanners, but its partnership with OnePlus won’t involve any of the company’s hardware. Instead, OnePlus claims it will combine its own hardware – as well as the main sensor supplied by Sony – with Hasselblad’s rich knowledge in traditional photography aesthetics. OnePlus claims that this partnership will expand in the future, but there’s no guarantee of what exactly this will mean for its customers.

To give you an example of brand power from our own backyard, Samsung’s ‘tuned by AKG’ branding that’s used for its headphones doesn’t really mean much beyond marketing. Audiophiles won’t ever look at the ‘tuned by AKG’ brand and convince themselves that they’ll be getting a pro-grade audio experience from Samsung’s earbuds, though to be fair, they remain the best in-box earbuds a smartphone buyer can get for free.

Granted, AKG is a Harman subsidiary and it’s technically owned by Samsung, whereas Leica and Hasselblad aren’t owned by Huawei and OnePlus, so the nature of these partnerships is very different. However, the point remains that popular brands and logos are oftentimes used for marketing purposes more than anything else, and in the case of Chinese smartphone OEMs, I’m not entirely convinced that the Leica and Hasselblad brands mean much in practical terms.

Should Samsung do the same, or should it continue improving its own brand image?

You might be wondering why Samsung hasn’t done the same as some of its rivals from China, and how come the world’s biggest smartphone vendor hasn’t partnered with a renowned camera maker, if not to improve mobile photography then to at least build hype around its products?

The exact reason is unknown but it might have to do with the fact that unlike Huawei, OnePlus, and other brands, Samsung is actually manufacturing its own mobile camera sensors under the ISOCELL brand, and it’s also manufacturing some of its own lenses. Its rivals, on the other hand, have to be supplied with sensors manufactured by Sony and even Samsung itself.

If Samsung would partner with a camera maker to use its brand for its flagship phones in a similar manner, the company would do so against its own camera business. Simply put, Samsung operates in a different sphere than Huawei, OnePlus and other OEMs, and it might not be as easy or profitable for Samsung to abandon its own brand image for the sake of another.

In conclusion, the main reason why Chinese OEMs are partnering with the likes of Leica and Hasselblad might be because of their brand power, perhaps more so than their expertise. These OEMs aren’t nearly as invested in manufacturing mobile camera systems as Samsung is, which gives them more freedom for branding and rebranding their products as they see fit, according to market trends.

Meanwhile, Samsung is constantly attempting to improve the brand image of its own camera business. Samsung probably won’t use another brand to bolster its own unless a popular camera brand becomes its subsidiary much like Harman and AKG did.

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