Editorial: It's Time The Smartphone Industry Redefined "Premium"

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Premium should be an individual thing, not a class thing

“Premium” used to mean something, and it probably still does. However, the meaning has lost weight in recent times and this is not just an effect of the marketing arms of companies, but the media as well. Therefore, it is probably now time for it to be redefined, as what is becoming increasingly clear is how premium no longer automatically equates to the best – and certainly not the best for your money.

In the smartphone game, many in the industry would be less inclined to tell you this cheaper smartphone is as good as this premium smartphone as there is an underlying assumption premium is automatically better. To be fair, this is not just an issue with smartphones and personal electronics as it can apply to pretty much any industry or product category. But that does not make it right and gas is a good example of why. While consumers have the option of choosing regular or premium gas, many would argue premium gas is unnecessary for some cars, and therefore not better and a waste of money – the same now applies to smartphones. Although the more pertinent point with the gas analogy is that there is a measurable way to classify gas as either regular or premium. The same can no longer be said for mobile products.


The processor narrative needs to change

This is by far and away the biggest obstacle when it comes to redefining premium. As many now automatically associate the processor with the tier quality of a smartphone. More accurately, the choice of Snapdragon processor. Qualcomm is a leading SoC maker and there can be no denying this. As the company has spent a good deal of investment and time in establishing the experience and knowledge it has, and now passes on through its mobile-related products. So yes, having a Qualcomm chip inside can mean a lot of things, including an expectation of quality. And yes, having an 800-series SoC onboard can also mean the chipset is more capable than a lower series chipset from Qualcomm. But what it should not mean is an 800-series chip is evidence of a premium smartphone. Yet, that now seems to be exactly the case as you would be hard-pressed to find a product in 2018 powered by the Snapdragon 845 which is not labeled — by everyone — as premium.

While it should be expected manufacturers draw on every marketing keyword they can to upsell their products, the media in general has bought into the same narrative and now regurgitates the same marketing spiel spoon-fed to them. For example, when a new device from Samsung, LG, Acer, ASUS, Alcatel, OnePlus, Motorola, or whomever, launches with a Snapdragon 845, it is automatically labeled as premium by media outlets and this use of language continues through the product’s lifespan. This is in spite of the same outlets (us included) publishing a review days after the announcement which highlights everything that is wrong with the device and all the reasons why it’s not so premium. Likewise, any device from the same manufacturer powered by the Snapdragon 600-series is automatically labeled as a mid-range product. Again, in spite of reviews then coming through talking about how the user is getting more of a premium experience from this mid-range device. None of it makes sense anymore and the latter part leads to the next point – how many premiums are there?


Premium should be binary – something is either premium or not

This is the ideal, although it’s understandable that premium can also be fluid – some things can be more premium than others. What it should not mean however, is there are levels of premium to the point where premium loses its meaning – where something can be premium, and not premium, at the same time. Which, again, is exactly where we now seem to be. Even though smartphone A may offer more premium features than smartphone B, it doesn’t take away from the fact that smartphone A and B are both premium smartphones – this is a binary approach as they either are or are not premium. What we have now though is where smartphone A can be announced with fewer premium features than smartphone B but with a processor and/or a price that is associated with premium – resulting in smartphone A labeled as premium, and B as mid-range. Need an example? The BlackBerry KEY2. This one sports many of the features/specs many would argue are premium (including a premium price), and even levels of innovation not found on any other top-tier smartphones, and yet due to the one area — the processor — it will be defined by many as a mid-range device.


What’s more, Qualcomm (and others) is now making the matter worse by blurring the lines even more through the employment of different layers of premium. Take the Snapdragon 710 and 845 for example. If you ask Qualcomm what the difference is, the company would likely say the 710 is for “high-quality” while the 845 is for “premium-quality.” But is there actually a difference in reality? Are they both not premium from a binary viewpoint? Yes, a Snapdragon 845 may offer more premium features, but more implies the other has premium features as well. Even Qualcomm’s own use of language highlights this point succinctly as the Snapdragon 710 is supposedly designed to bring “premium features to a new tier of smartphones,” yet those same smartphones are supposedly not premium smartphones – just smartphones boasting premium features. The takeaway, when premium loses its binary nature things start to make less sense, highlighting the importance of not over-using the word. Or for that matter – relying to heavily on individual aspects of a product, such as the processor… or the price.

Premium price does not equate to a premium product

You would think this is quite a straightforward point, but it’s not. In reality, anything priced in the premium price bracket should be premium in terms of quality. While that is the ideal the market is very far away from that reality. Instead, manufacturers attach whatever price they want to a product and the industry further uses it as reinforcement that a product is a premium product. Which is simply untrue. OnePlus has made a name for itself from offering so-called premium products at prices that are more akin to non-premium products. And OnePlus is not the only one to do so, with a number of companies now offering what many might consider premium devices at prices that determine them as lesser-tiered options. Somehow, premium, but not premium. In terms of OnePlus specifically, a binary approach highlights two distinct realities. Either OnePlus devices are premium and then aspects like the price have zero relevance, or OnePlus devices do not come with enough additional features to be classified as premium in the first place. If adopting the latter stance, then while the OnePlus 6 might be good value for money, may offer a number of worthwhile selling points, it’s not actually a premium smartphone.


The same can also be applied to the very top end of the pricing scale, as there are many products that are being released with a very clear premium price attached, and yet the products could not be any further away from being premium. They lack the build quality, the design, the innovation, and the features worthy of a premium tag, and yet they are classified as premium and manage to maintain that classification through their lifespan. In most cases, simply due to very few indicators, including the price. Just like with the OnePlus 6, an argument can be made Google’s Pixel line of phones are not actually premium products. The takeaway, price is not an indicator of quality and therefore should not be used as a means to imply product superiority. Just as much as “value” should no longer suggest something is not premium.

The impact of a loose premium definition

For those asking why any of this matters, it’s simple. When people buy a smartphone the main aspect they likely want to know is whether it’s worth the money. If a device costs $1,000 and is worth every cent, then it’s worth buying. Likewise, if a device costs $200 and is worth $600 then it is even more worth buying. So the use of words like premium which have become increasingly muddled lately, results in a landscape where consumers are being fed bad information, and falsely led on the quality of a product. Just because a device costs $1,000 and is powered by a Snapdragon 845 does not mean it is automatically a premium device, and/or worthy of the asking price. Especially when compared to a device that costs a fifth of the price, does not use a Snapdragon 845, and yet offers bags of value in comparison. Arguably, the $200 device is more of a premium product as you are getting significantly more for your money within its class. Another way to look at this – the $1,000 product might only be a regular product for $1,000 as there is nothing premium about it. Points which highlight the necessity of separating premium products at an individual level, instead of at a class level.


So how do you redefine premium?

There is no easy answer to this question, as in addition to the multiple variables that now make up a smartphone, there are just as many individual consumer variables that come into play. What Alex views as premium might not be the same as what Justin views as premium and these individual differences matter. For example, is security now more or less of a premium feature compared to the processor? If more, than products like the KEY2 which offer heightened levels of security are premium devices. If you take the stance that the KEY2’s security features are just one premium feature on an otherwise non-premium device, then the same logic must be applied to the processor going forward.

The reality is, unlike gas where the level of octane automatically equates to the categorization (even then the octane quantity used to define premium is also not static – it varies from place to place), the only way really to try to standardize the use of the term going forward is to actually define premium products by their overall package and in relation to other similar products. Again, while this might seem like an obvious thing to say, and something many might assume to already be the case – it’s not. We are not talking here about looking at the price and the processor and automatically pigeonholing product A as premium and product B as mid-range, but actually looking at everything product A offers in comparison to similar products to A and determining when all things are considered does it offer a premium product compared to its contemporaries. In other words, irrespective of whether it includes a premium processor, or a premium price, is it a premium product within its class. The same can then be applied to product B where it is compared to B-like smartphones and determined whether or not it’s a premium product for its class. Take the LG G5 as a case in point – a smartphone few would consider to be premium even though it was 100-percent a premium product based on the current understanding. It came with the right specs, the right price, and even a modular design – on paper, premium in every sense of the word and in reality one of the worst devices of the year. Things need to change, premium either needs to be redefined, or at the very least used to indicate when something is actually that little bit more special compared to its competition. It’s time to stop asking whether it includes premium parts, but whether the sum of those parts results in a premium product.