Why Tech Companies Get Iran Wrong
Iran has been touted as the greatest untapped market on earth for multinational technology companies. Bar a couple of exceptions like Samsung and HTC few of the international giants have an official presence in the country.
Articles commonly tout a handful of key demographic facts when describing Iran's potential:
Sanctions have kept 77 million Iranian consumers from Western goods and services for decades. And Iran’s population is young (two-thirds of the population is under 35), smart (the highest share of engineering graduates in the world), tech-savvy (the highest internet penetration in the Middle East) and relatively wealthy (the world’s 21st largest economy in 2013, despite sanctions, and a GDP higher than India’s).
But what do these young, smart, tech-savvy, and wealthy consumers really expect from consumer electronics?
Western consumer electronics have been sold in the Iranian market in large quantities since the mid-1990s, in step with the digital revolution. In recent years, the Iranian uptake of the iPhone demonstrates the tendency of Iranian consumers to both adopt new technology quickly, and to develop creative trade connections to ensure supply, sometimes purchasing the latest devices directly from factories in China and elswhere.
For example, I once discovered a Motorola Moto smartphone – a phone made at the time in the United States – in a Tehran store display cabinet brandishing the factory-applied logo of American carrier AT&T.
Items like this imported smartphone show how sanctions hinder both multinational manufacturers and the Iranian consumer. With these grey market imports, Motorola simply cannot gain any real data on Iranian purchasing patterns nor can it understand the local mobile telephone market. It competes in a market in which it has no direct contact with its consumers.
On the other hand, the Iranian consumer is also shortchanged. Their chosen phone lacks company support or warranty and they pay a hefty premium on each device.
In this unusual status quo, American companies, most hindered by sanctions, fare the worst. Their corporate researchers, anticipating the eventual opening of the market, rely on second, third or fourth hand information regurgitated in the media coverage of Iran's commercial potential. This coverage creates a warped view of the domestic Iranian market. Moreover, with the inconsistent and sometimes contractionary market reports produced by Iran's domestic media, this problem is only exacerbated.
But even the absence of many major multinational still doesn't fully explain why so much data on Iran is duff. For that you need to get to the finer points of publicly available reports and then it all starts to become clear.
The onus rests on the international market research firms which produce reports on the Iranian market. These firms use a myriad of unorthodox tactics to gather market data on the domestic Iranian market.
In many instances they simply use fluent Persian language speakers based abroad to read and monitor news reports about specific industries. For more granular information, they might also sometimes cold call Iranian households to ask survey questions about product preferences. These piecemeal methods unfortunately leave big gaps when the finalized data is published.
It is only with on the ground analysis and street-level market reporting that it becomes possible to decipher why certain consumer electronics companies do well in Iran, or why a given device or operating system is the most popular.
Out of all foreign companies it is the South Korean conglomerates which have the best data on Iran, owing to their official precense in the country. They are not likely to share this vital information with their American competition. A recent report on the website of Press TV's– Iran's official English-language international news service–highlights that Samsung in particular is ramping up efforts to strengthen its market position.
However, Apple has so far outpaced all other manufacturers in terms of appeal. This might be unsurprising given that it is now the world's leading smartphone manufacturer. Yet, the Cupertino firm still doesn't have an official representative in the Iranian capital, nor does it offer warranties by third or even fourth party vendors. The grey market imports available on the market are also unusually expensive. But the appeal of the iPhone 6 and Macbook continues to trounce all the other devices available to Iranian consumers.
As part of the global battle with their American foe, Samsung has had an uphill struggle against Apple in Iran. Knowing it lacks the same brand appeal, the Korean firm has invested millions of dollars to establish flagship stores across the country, battling sanctions to offer warranties and even creating Iran's most prolific corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy among foreign companies. But despite all these feathers to their hat, they still have to fight the overall brand power of their main American rival.
Bluechip Japanese electronics firms have also struggled in the Iranian environment in recent years. Some industry insiders admit that Sony, for example, spends one-tenth the amount on marketing budgeted by Samsung. JVC, has all but disappeared from the country's high streets with the last remaining stores stocking dated LCD TVs. Panasonic on the other hand seems to be increasing its presence once again. A flagship store on Shariati Street in Tehran recently saw a complete overhaul.
Yet, massive investment in Iran is no guarantee for success and consumer electronics and technology companies have blundered before. One example can be seen in the case of Nokia in 2009. The Finnish firm reigned supreme among multinationals in the Iranian market, even maintaining a major office on Bucharest Street in Tehran.
However, poorly structured telecommunications deals with their local Iranian partner, misinformation spreading like wildfire, and the firm's general unwillingness to develop a global smartphone strategy quickly put an end to their dominance. No amount of investment could rebuild the tarnished brand in the eyes of the Iranian consumer.
It isn't just hardware or device manufactures who fall short. Microsoft has also squandered an advantage in the brand appeal of its software. Even though the Obama administration eased sanctions on the sale of electronics in 2013, Microsoft has little engagement of Iranian consumers.
Microsoft has continuously punished Iranian users for their use of illegal software, forcing nearly the entire country to rely on unreliable pirated editions purchased cheaply in Iran. The lack of official product support is especially vexing for Iranians as the newest updates, patches, and features remain unavailable for all those unable to purchase an official software license. In fact the problem for the American software firm is so great that thousands of Iranians have petitioned Microsoft to offer official support. Again, despite a dominant market share, negative experiences will continue to color the Iranian view of Microsoft products.
If American, European, and East Asian technology companies want to get a grasp of the Iranian market they are going to need to understand a few things about the average Iranian consumer that data cannot capture. Firstly, as a conversation with any traders or consumers will reveal, the two largest issues for local consumers are warranties and sales support. This is something which foreign manufacturers generally only pay lip service to. For now, it seems Samsung is the exception, having smartly spent huge sums of money on after-sales support. LG comes a close second in terms of support and has also recently stepped up efforts to offer a better consumer experience in major cities like Tehran.
Secondly, rationalization of the shopping experience is a must for most consumers. The traditional bazaar shopping experience continues to this day with many consumers purchasing their electronic items from independent stores, who set inconsistent prices and cannot vouch for the authenticity of their products. This shopping experience leaves a lot to be desired, and often if any problem arises with said items, people have no recourse when something goes awry. The discrepancy between this shopping experience and the carefully calibrated environment of an Apple or Microsoft store abroad must be noted.
In sum, Iranian consumers' requirements are similar to those found in any developed market. Sanctions have not prevented access to the latest technology, but they have made the overall buying experience more strenuous and costly than in perhaps any other market. In a post-sanctions environment, the battle will not be to ensure Iranians purchase devices. Rather, multinational firms must vie to offer the best overall customer service and generate positive brand experiences. The most successful companies will be those that focus less on the hard sales data, and focus more on the more intangible needs and preferences of the Iranian consumer.
In a world of apps and product ecosystems, consumer technology is about more than just the device. The same will become true in Iran.
Photo Credit: Reuters, Raheb Homavandi