Inside India

boAt and the upcoming wave of Indian consumer electronics

The wearable electronics market is a fast growing one. Consumers are buying earphones, smartwatches, fitness bands, etc., at an annual growth rate above 30% (IDC report). For instance, India is the largest market for smart watches in the world by volume. Global shipments of smart watches grew by 6% globally in Q4 2023 but by about 43% in India (Counterpoint Research). Some estimates point at the total wearable market tripling from now to 2030. It is a market where big consumer brands like Apple, Samsung, Xiaomi, Sony, Huawei and many more seem to dominate. So with Apple being number one, which company do you think is number two by units sold?


The answer is none of the other giants but a young start-up from India, Boat Lifestyle (boAt, in short form), which started selling its products in 2016 and today boasts a global market share in consumer wearables of 9.6%, still far from Apple’s 29.9% but ahead of #3 Xiaomi’s 7.8% and all the other big players (IDC report). To give a further sense of the accomplishment, boAt’s main market segment, earphones, contains not only the likes of Apple, Sony or Samsung but also Philips, Sennheiser and JBL, among many others.

boAt’s story could be summarised as “do things right in the Indian domestic market and in five years you can be a top-3 company in global volume sales”

boAt’s success is fascinating in many ways. First, it defies the narrative of India only being able to exploit skilled labor cost advantages (e.g., IT services), as this business requires the traditional design/technology, manufacturing and marketing/distribution value chain. Second, it provides an almost perfect case study on how to build a consumer brand in today’s India, from the choice of segments and categories to the building of a competitive advantage. And third, it puts forth a candidate industry in which India could develop world-class strength, especially if combined with the chip manufacturing capability that the country is so intensely trying to develop.

How to build a brand

So what is that potential “textbook” case on building a consumer brand in India that boAt so precisely illustrates? Here it is.


#1. Target millennials and genZ on a core need. This first one is simple. India has about 700 million people in that age bracket. Not all of them are really consumers, many of them spend only on basic necessities, but that still leaves hundreds of millions as potential buyers. And boAt addresses one of things they must spend money on, that is, smartphone accessories, as their digital lives revolve around that gadget.


#2. Build a product that solves specific Indian needs. This is beautifully laid out in a Harvard case study by Rajiv Lal and Kairavi Dey. It has been pointed several times in this blog how success in Indian consumer markets (and for that matter, anywhere in the world) lies in the ability to offer products that respond to specific needs of the consumer, not just generic ones. boAt is a great example of that. You would think that a set of earphones has the same requirements everywhere (sound, durability, price, etc) but boAt realised early on, for instance, that the microphone needed to have extra sensitivity to capture voice as Indian streets are (we know) particularly noisy. Or that the bass tone of the audio output needed reinforcement as a lot of Indian music contains strong bass sounds. Even boAt’s initial USP, extra-strong charging cables, speaks to an understanding of the specific pain points of the Indian consumer. Global companies have a disadvantage here, as their approach is always biased towards standard products. And this is what makes them inadequate for growth into the next Indian consumer class, which is second point that the boAt story illustrates.


#3. Make a product that can be sold to India 2. Readers of this blog are familiar with Abhijit Pai/Blume Ventures’ segmentation of the Indian consumer. There is India 1, made of the 120 million most affluent consumers, that is responsible for the majority of the total consumption. They are reliable but also come with a growth ceiling. But then, there is India 2, the “aspirant class” that is quickly joining the consumer class as their incomes grow. India 1 is relatively easy to crack as it allows premium pricing and is very comfortable with global products. It is a group in which Apple has the upper hand. But India 2 is much more difficult in terms of pricing and value. And that is one of boAt’s biggest accomplishments: To make a set of earphones or a smart watch at 1/10th of Apple’s price that is still perceived as premium relative to similarly low cost models and that delivers the right combination of value. The price, the “made in India for India” image, but also the aspirational value, blow the door to India 2 wide open, unlocking a whole other level of growth.


#4. Leverage the e-commerce giants. boAt was made on Amazon, where it found the ideal space to find product-market fit and differentiation. As the first channel for a start-up, it is ideal for many reasons. Flipkart came next and now qCommerce is on board. boAt has to eventually move towards omnichannel and include offine but that was a great start.


#5. Put the brand in the hands of the right celebrity. Another familiar theme in this blog is the Indian consumer’s inherent lack of trust. The only power that can convince said consumer that something is special is one of the revered Indian celebrities, basically an actor or an athlete. So this is a marketing route that should be safe for any brand, cheap or expensive, incumbent or new. But before you think that being head of marketing in India is the easiest job in the world, the trick obviously lies in picking the right ambassador. boAt first went with Hardik Pandya, an up-and-coming superstar cricket player that reflected well the image of young, rebellious, modern, etc that the company seeked to establish, with great results. Later on, a true murderers’ row of young, cool and famous with the likes of Kartik Aryan (actor), Kiara Advani (actress), Shreyas Iyer (cricketer), Diljit Dosanjh (actor/musician), Neha Kakkar (musician) and Ranveer Singh (actor) have become boAt brand ambassadors.

The future

So how much more can boAt grow, domestically and internationally? And, is the consumer wearables a market where Indian-grown companies can make a mark globally?


On the first question, the answer is a lot, as all the typical growth avenues seem to be available to boAt. For instance, the company can keep expanding into new categories. Their start in charging cables gave them a strong foundation of consumer trust. Their move to earphones and then smart watches and home audio seemed natural. But once they have the consumer loyalty and assets in place, many more loosely related categories become available. Male grooming (a fast-growing industry in India)? Done. Apparel? Phones and other gadgets? Maybe. And then there is the international expansion potential, with many countries containing loads of the young consumers that boAt specializes in. And also much more channel expansion to be explored. As said, endless potential.


And what about the second question? Can this be an industry in which Indian companies plant a flag at the global level? Two data points on that. First, boAt is not the only successful story in this market. Right now, two more Indian upstarts, Noise and Fire Boltt have close to 10% volume market share each in the smart watch segment globally, making them top-3 in the world with Apple and Huawei. So, it is not an isolated story but the potential beginning of an actual global advantage. Second, consumer electronics mesh well with India’s often-stated ambition to become a global player in microchip design and manufacturing. That is a grand ambition that might take decades rather than years but the fact that so many efforts and resources will be put there in the coming years cannot but help boAt and friends’ growth and competitiveness.


On the downside, boAt’s success means that now they are the ones being imitated and having to defend differentiation against other local and foreign companies, especially in the most price-sensitive customers segments. Nothing is guaranteed for them in the future but oh my, what a start they have had.