Why Stephen Curry Is Plugging a Chinese Smartphone

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NBA superstar Stephen Curry has appeared in a lot of commercials, including one for the Apple iPhone back in 2015. Now the Golden State Warriors guard is plugging a smartphone brand you probably haven't heard of: China's Vivo. In a print ad from Fred & Farid Shanghai, Mr. Curry trades his basketball for a Vivo Xplay 6.

Vivo and Oppo, a sister smartphone brand, are seeing astonishing growth, despite their low profile in well-developed Western markets. Their rise is a worry for Samsung and Apple because they're pushing so swiftly into Asian countries where fast-growing middle classes will power future growth for brands. Globally, Samsung and Apple were the No. 1 and 2 smartphone players in 2016, but they both shipped fewer phones compared to 2015, IDC says. Compare that to Oppo and Vivo, the world's No. 4 and 5 smartphone players, which more than doubled their shipments in 2016.

Both offer high-quality phones at an affordable price, both have incentivized sales reps at far-flung mobile stores, and both have waged a marketing blitz in China, India and other countries across Asia.

"They are out-marketing rivals such as Samsung in many markets," said Neil Shah, research director at Counterpoint Research. He's based in India, where Oppo hired Bollywood star Deepika Padukone and Vivo went with actor Ranvir Singh. Mr. Shah, who tallied up the brands' sports deals, added that he's "seen lots of trains completely painted or postered with Oppo or Vivo in India."

Vivo has a deal with the NBA in China; commercials featuring Mr. Curry will air in China and the Philippines too. Oppo signed a $167 million sponsorship of the Indian national cricket team for the next five years. It also has a deal with European soccer club FC Barcelona designed to target the team's millions of fans in Indonesia, the world's fourth-most-populous country.

Both brands have made big pushes in countries across Southeast Asia. On a trip to Myanmar, Ad Age spotted unexpected Vivo and Oppo logos deep in the countryside.

Vivo and Oppo were each founded by billionaire Duan Yongping, though they compete against each other. Oppo, launched in 2005, and Vivo, in 2009, have upped their game with high-end specs, challenging perceptions of Chinese brands being low quality.

Vivo chose Mr. Curry "to upgrade its image in China, to go more premium with an international touch," said Feng Huang, partner and executive creative director of Fred & Farid Shanghai.

In China, the world's biggest smartphone market, competition is cutthroat. Vivo boosted its measured media spend there by nearly 118% in 2016 to reach $205 million, according to CTR Media Intelligence; that measure doesn't include things like digital or sponsorships, where the brand spends heavily. Oppo's measured spend was up 54% to $147 million.

Paying out is paying off: In China, Oppo and Vivo were the No. 1 and 3 smartphone players by shipments in 2016, while another local brand, Huawei, was No. 2, according to IDC. In China, all of them have surpassed Apple and Samsung.

Vivo's partnership with Mr. Curry also includes a special edition phone with a blue and yellow body, his team colors. He is plugging that on his social channels in China, giving one away with his signature on the back. Recently, though, a young Chinese fan won an even more personal present from Mr. Curry. He packed up a pair of worn Under Armour sneakers and had them delivered to a young female fan named Jiaying at the basketball court of her high school in Shanghai. In a scene shot for social media, she was delighted and immediately put them on.

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