How Sony is Embracing Its Niche and Succeeding
I grew up in New York City, but I have lived in the midwest for almost a few decades. When I tell people this in Detroit, they often ask me what the city is like. My default answer is usually the same: If you want to visit New York City, you should go twice. The first time to do all the tourist stuff: Go to Times Square, see the Statue of Liberty, etc. The second time you’ll experience the real magic of New York, as I call it. The vibrant food and art scenes and visiting the other boroughs outside of Manhattan. My logic has always been that while the Manhattan experience is great, it is not the only great experience. This part of the New York experience is understated but still great for the right people.
I think this overall theme applies to a variety of experiences that we have as humans. In the movie and music realms, for instance, the mainstream product is enjoyable for many, but some lesser-known and independent projects can be even more enjoyable for the right people. This sort of grassroots realization is not something we see from a lot of consumer electronics brands. The goal is always to be as big as possible. But there are exceptions to the rule. With its latest phone announcement, Sony’s Xperia division has seemed to lean into its niche of users, and it is refreshing.
The mass market isn’t for everyone
In the world of smartphones, it seems that every company is trying to become a monolith. In fact, it’s the success of the iPhone that has shaped the ambitions of so many smartphone makers over the last decade. The iPhone was a runaway success immediately and changed the way we perceived smartphones forever. A transformation from a business tool to a pocket computer for the masses.
That sort of categorical shift is what caused so many smartphone makers to try and find the next huge shift in mobile, to be the next iPhone. This led to big swings and misses like 3D cameras, modular phones, and an assortment of biometric authentication methods. All these failures with the aim of becoming the next apex predator of the mobile phone industry. But what about a company that understands its strengths but also its weaknesses? A company that picks its lane and excels at it. No company has done this. Even companies aimed at enthusiasts like OnePlus have simultaneously been geared toward a mass-market appeal. But it seems that Sony is looking to be that company.
Sony’s Xperia line of phones has never sold in massive numbers. Sony sold 2.9 million phones in 2020, a decrease from the previous year. But for the first time since 2017, the company turned a profit with its mobile business. How has Sony done this? Through a strategy of limited supply, higher profit margins, and a laser focus on specific users. For years Sony was another smartphone maker toiling with the race to catch the trendsetters in Cupertino. But these days, the company seems far more content to make phones for a dedicated few.
Sony has looked at itself as a company to define this new focused smartphone tactic. It has leaned on its expertise in other fields such as televisions, photography, audio, and gaming to define what a Sony fan actually is and built a phone for that user. Sony calls these “communities of interest” and will be positioning its phones moving forward to specific use cases as opposed to searching for mass appeal. It’s a strategy that shows an understanding of a user base and a refreshing focus of that company designing a product with that user base in mind.
Communities of interest
So what are these sections of users that Sony has decided to target with its renewed Xperia strategy? According to the company, they are now making phones for Photographers, Cinematographers, Audiophiles, and Mobile Gamers. Let’s take a look at how Sony is appealing to these users with its new lineup of devices this year.
Photographers: Last year with the release of the Sony Xperia 1 II, Sony brought the professional camera interface from its Alpha cameras to mobile. This application mimics the experience of Sony’s high-end DSLR cameras and utilizes the physical shutter button on the body of the phone to give the user maximum control for the shot that they are looking to achieve. To a novice camera user, this interface is daunting and confusing. To a professional photographer, however, this interface is right at home with what they are used to.
Keeping in line with the professional motif, the Sony camera can shoot in RAW for a better editing experience after the photo is taken. Sony has also introduced the world’s first phone with a variable telephoto lens to ensure that the perfect shot is available every time. While Sony has improved the auto mode of the camera, they have emphasized that using an Xperia camera is a fine precision tool for those that know how to use it as opposed to an automatic point and shoot solution that uses HDR and AI to get the best photo. This is a camera with photography enthusiasts in mind and it shows.
Cinematographers: Still photos aren’t the only professional niche that Sony is targeting with its cameras on its new devices. For those that love video, Sony has enhanced its Cinema Pro application to suit the needs of video content creators. Sony has made its Cinema Pro app powered by CineAlta, a technology that the company uses on its professional film cameras to mimic the experience of filming on 35mm lenses that are used in motion picture cameras. Additionally, the company has added 4K HDR capability for slow-motion video and Optical Steady Shot for a better-focused filming experience.
Quite simply, Sony envisions mobile cinematographers to utilize these features to craft higher quality video content. During its presentation, the company highlighted the company’s commitment to award-winning short film mobile content. What Sony is saying here is that their phones can help to create video content to the next level, more than other devices on the market. Again, Sony is aiming for content creators that create their content on the go. And these capabilities in these new devices speak to this targeted approach.
Audiophiles: It has been a very rough few years for all of us that enjoy high-resolution audio on our phones. Starting with the iPhone 7, phones have been taking away the 3.5mm headphone jack and have started to prioritize Bluetooth audio solutions. One of the last companies to maintain the jack on flagship phones was LG, but they have recently decided not to make phones anymore. This leaves Sony as the only company left that makes high-end smartphones with headphone jacks but also with high-end audio engineering software to ensure a great experience for audiophiles.
Sony has the physical headphone jack of course, but the company also has implemented Dolby Atmos audio for surround sound experiences and support for its LDAC audio codec ensuring excellent audio quality via wired or Bluetooth connections. Additionally, Sony has incorporated what it calls 360 Reality Audio to the Xperia speakers on the 1 III and 5 III that creates an immersive listening experience regardless of how the audio content is being consumed. Now, not many people are going to utilize these audio features but Sony is showing an understanding that they are a household name for excellent audio and making sure that their phones live up to this reputation, giving lovers of top-notch audio a phone designed for them.
Mobile Gamers: The last core audience of Xperia may perhaps be the most wide-ranging. Mobile gaming is a growing industry that saw an increase in player base by 12% over the last year. Sony has seen this rapid growth in its home market of Japan and also its explosion in neighboring China. As such they have equipped the Xperia 1 III with specifications that take advantage of this to make Xperia an attractive brand to mobile gamers that might not want a gaming-specific phone (such as the ASUS ROG Phone 5) but still want a great gaming experience.
The Xperia 1 III addresses gamers’ needs by being the first smartphone with a 4K OLED screen with a 120 Hz refresh rate. The phone is of course equipped with Qualcomm’s latest SnapDragon 888 5G chipset for top-of-the-line performance. But many phones can boast this power, where Xperia shines is a color-accurate display, enhanced heat management so the phone does not overheat during gameplay, support for the Playstation DualShock controller, and high-quality game recording with its Rewind Time technology. The combination of these features creates an appealing package for those that game often on their devices. Not to mention that Xperia continues to be an industry leader in battery health technology, with its batteries rated to last for longer periods of time than others in the field. These technologies show a commitment to another segment that Sony values with its devices, and the result is a compelling offering worth considering.
Creating an identity
So often in the mobile space, companies try to wear too many hats. Where a device tries to be both easy to use but also for the power user. Samsung has tried to tiptoe with this line for years, but it has seemingly accepted its fate as an easier-to-use phone for the masses. For a while, it has seemed that the only phones that had a focused intent were gaming phones. These phones featured liquid cooling, dual batteries, and sharp RGB-infused lines that appeal to the gaming community.
But with Sony’s trio of new devices, it has identified its niche and is leaning into it fully. Sony has recognized that its core users love to create and consume content at a very high level. And it is building its phone with those people in mind. It has been unapologetic about this, leading many reviewers and commentators to suggest that the company makes bad phones or may go out of business because there is no push for a mass market. It seems like every week there is more speculation from these commentators that Sony will be the next company to exit the mobile space. Yet the truth of the matter is that the company has started to turn a profit with its low quantity high margin targeted approach to selling phones.
A Sony phone might not be for everyone, but it definitely does have an audience. As many LG users have to decide which compromises to make as they choose the next phone brand to support and use, Sony offers an olive branch. A suite of devices that cater to the LG fan that loved the wired audio and manual camera experience of those phones. Ultimately, Sony views itself as a premium electronics brand and will price its products accordingly. As it sees itself in that manner, it has embraced being a niche player not interested in trying to take a path of reinvention to compete with Apple or a path of corner-cutting to compete with the various discount Chinese brands that have popped up in recent years. Sony knows what Xperia is and what they want Xperia to be, and I only wish that more phone manufacturers took a similar approach to create their phones.