Monday, March 5, 2012

Kodak’s Moment

As impacts on the greater economy go, Kodak’s recent declaration of bankruptcy ranks right up there with Chrysler’s decision to shut down the Plymouth brand.  After all, both Plymouth and the Great Yellow Father (as photographers called Kodak) reek of nostalgia, but both represent different times.  Plymouth meant something when Richard Petty drove one in NASCAR, and Kodak meant something back when Paul Simon sang about Kodachrome.

Kodak, to most Americans nowadays, means film.  Thus as consumers replaced their Instamatics with digital cameras and, eventually, phones, Kodak meant less and less.  However, this tidy and nostalgic narrative elides two important details:

  1. Kodak largely invented digital photography, but failed to capitalize on it, much in the way the Xerox failed to take advantage of the graphic user interface that Apple rode to greatness.
  2. More importantly, film still makes money for Kodak.

Point #1 makes for a tidy business school case study, but point #2 suggests that with the restructuring required by bankruptcy, Kodak has an opportunity--a Kodak moment--to build a sustainable business.

Granted, film will never retake substantial market share from digital.  However, it still has a few die-hard audiences.  Most obviously, technophobes cling to film.  Unfortunately for Kodak, this audience gets smaller every day as film becomes more and more expensive in relation to digital and as digital gets even more idiot-proof.

The major users of film remain the fine art, commercial and hobbyist communities.  Some proponents point to the superior tonality of film, a characteristic that results in more subtle grades of color and light.  Others (including yours truly) simply enjoy the process of using film.  Even in these niches, though, digital has made significant inroads.  Newer and newer cameras and software offer closer and closer approximations of film at increasingly affordable prices.

My free advice (worth every penny) to Kodak is thus: become a luxury goods brand.  Almost no one NEEDS to use film, which makes it a luxury.  As a result, Kodak should consider three basic elements that characterize successful luxury brands:
  1. Form a direct relationship with all of your customers.  Current, Kodak really only markets directly to large users of their products, such as commercial developers, or to recognized artists.  Luxury goods, on the other hand, routinely court all users--letting them know about new and emerging products, soliciting their feedback and thanking them for their patronage.  At the very least, Kodak should have an email address or social network ID of everyone who uses their film and reach out to them with a segmented communications approach.
  2. Focus on experience.  Many photographers (read: me, at any rate) get a small thrill of opening a plastic canister and taking a whiff of the highly unnatural chemicals inside.  Beyond the olfactory experience, a roll of film offers little in the way of sensory feedback.  Why not use a better grade of cardboard, a more aspirational design or even a new material entirely to make the film customer feel that he or she is partaking of something remarkable?  Check out the way Godiva packages their less costly treats to get an idea of luxury marketers push packaging.
  3. Confer status on users.  Already, carrying a film camera marks a photographer as something unusual.  Depending on the beholder’s point of view, it marks him or her as anything from an old coot to an artiste.  Why can’t Kodak help that photographer define himself or herself with pins or other doodads that declare “expert” or “gifted amateur” or something else interesting?  A basic loyalty program could help Kodak keep tabs on users’ habits and allow them to confer status based on rolls consumed or photos published to a community website.

Obviously, Kodak needs more than a few hundred words spouted off by someone with no history of marketing in photography.  However, unless they wish to take over the mantle of “outdated industry” from the buggy whip folks, they’d better start making lemonade from those little yellow cans.

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