Author(s): Raghu Gopal
The nomenclature has become a bit vague. The term flagship has become a descriptive metaphor for a company's lead product, but sometimes it refers to a line-up. When Samsung released the Galaxy S9 and S9+ earlier in March, Samsung itself referred to the devices as "flagship smartphones".
Flagships truly became a plural term in 2014 when Apple launched the iPhone 6 and its larger sibling, the iPhone 6 Plus. They were high-end devices, and the choice for consumers wasn't just a matter of money but also of taste — these were pricey phones.
If the meaning of the term flagship has been extended to refer to a tier of a company's devices, rather than a single device, the tier itself is being expanded. Top phone-makers are growing their top-tier portfolios to target more preferences and budgets.
If Apple announces three smartphones later this month, as expected, they will all be regarded — at least in spirit — as flagships along a spectrum: good, great and special. The company started this trend in 2017 and seems to already have established a two-and-one pattern.
Apple's annual flagship portfolios have grown from one to two to three models, and with success, so it's not difficult to see why this strategy could be emulated.
We believe 2019 will be a particularly interesting model year, as device makers try to balance their sense of innovation with their need for moving volumes. Many top smartphone brands will introduce a 5G handset to their line-ups, but, given the high costs of adding next-generation connectivity, they will have to continue to build out their "mainstream" flagships. The challenge for phone makers will be making sure the products at the top of a portfolio continue to create a "halo" effect for their other devices and that the message doesn't become too diluted with a variety of flagships on offer.