Live by the category, die by the category
If digital photography represents a difficult challenge for Kodak, it represented a near impossible one for Polaroid. In October 2001, after years of falling sales and drastic cost cuts, the firm filed for bankruptcy. Although the company was eventually purchased in July 2002 by the private equity arm of Bank One, many believe the glory days of Polaroid are in the past.
However, digital cameras are only one contributing factor in the perceived decline of the instant photography brand. To understand how it was unable to maintain its once formidably strong brand assets, it is necessary to understand how the brand evolved.
Polaroid was founded by Harvard graduate Edwin Land in 1937, who had spent years researching ways to reduce the problem of glare within photographs.
Indeed, early Polaroid products included glare-reducing desk lamps and eye glasses.
In the years after World War II, Polaroid became chiefly associated with instant photography. Land, who had pioneered a process in which coloured dyes were able to be passed from a negative onto film inside a sealed unit, launched his first camera in 1948 and by the 1970s the brand was a household name. In fact, as the first and only brand within its category, the brand became the name of the end product itself. In other words, people didn’t say ‘a Polaroid photograph’ or even ‘a photograph’, they simply said ‘a Polaroid’.
Polaroid’s profile was enhanced further during the 1970s through the longrunning advertising campaign for the company’s One Step camera, featuring actors James Garner and Mariette Hartley in romantic roles. Because of its instantaneous nature, with photos developed in your hand seconds after they were taken, the Polaroid identity became that of a fun, cool ‘live for the moment’ kind of brand.
The 1970s also saw Polaroid develop an almost cult status, with various high-profile figures becoming passionate fans of the brand. The art world, in particular, became a fan of instant photography. This was no accident.
Edwin Land had understood that artists could help to legitimize his invention since the 1950s. He had known that if Polaroid was seen as a novelty, or a gimmick, the brand would die as quickly as it had emerged. He therefore needed to establish Polaroid photography as a potential art form in its own right.
In 1955 he had found the solution in the form of Ansel Adams, an internationally acclaimed landscape photographer who had exhibited at the
By the mid 1970s, modern artists of a very different nature to Ansel Adams became Polaroid devotees. Such luminaries as Andy Warhol, David Hockney, William Wegman, Chuck Close, Lucas Samaras and Marie Cosindas were all big fans. Warhol, in particular, loved his Polaroid camera. He had it with him at all times and snapped everyone he met on his hedonistic adventures around
In an article which appeared in the Guardian in October 2001, Jonathan Jones explained the connection between the Polaroid brand and the art world:
Polaroid colour is intense, slightly unreal, adding its own sheen to an image. This appealed to artists because it made explicit the artifice of the photographic [. . .] The revolution that made Polaroid a universal tool for artists, as well as a truly mass photographic method, was the launch of its SX-70 camera in 1972. This was the first camera to have an integral Polaroid film, so you took the picture and saw it come out of the camera in an instant.
Since the company became a household name in the early 1970s, Polaroid had been used by artists to make dirty, cheap, quick, casual pictures whose contribution to the good name of Polaroid is debatable [. . .] The 1970s were the golden age of the Polaroid, but not in a way that lived up to Land’s artistic ideals.
In other words, the endorsement of artists and photographers which Land had so craved was now having a counterproductive impact on a brand seeking to establish instant photography as a serious medium. So while Polaroid’s popularity continued to rise, in many ways its credibility started to diminish.
With Polaroid viewed as a fun, frivolous and even throwaway brand, consumers rarely considered a Polaroid as a substitute for a ‘normal’ camera.
These cameras were usually seen as a luxurious and optional product, which although they might provide fun at parties, would never be as good as a Canon for taking family portraits.
This problem could have been partially resolved if ‘conventional’ photography brands such as Kodak were seen by the public to be treating instant photography seriously. In fact, Kodak had treated it seriously and planned to compete against Polaroid with its own range of instant cameras. Polaroid, however, was unwilling to share its market with anyone else and filed a lawsuit against Kodak. But while Polaroid may have won in the courts, it had effectively stopped the growth of the instant photography market.
This deliberate strategy of isolation was to cause further problems in the 1980s when more affordable conventional 35mm cameras saturated the
This meant that Polaroid was gradually losing its key brand asset. It hadn’t been able to compete on quality for some time, but it had been able to compete on speed. Now even that was being taken away.
The final blow was the arrival en masse of home computers and digital cameras. In his account of Polaroid’s demise, BBC News Online’s North America business reporter neatly summed up the superiority of digital photography: ‘Not only could pictures be taken and viewed instantly, but they could be sent hundreds if not thousands of miles away with a mere click or two of a computer mouse.’
Rapidly, the Polaroid brand was running out of options. It had already tried to expand into conventional 35mm photographic film, but had failed to convert enough Kodak customers. The brand association of Polaroid and instant photography had proven too strong in consumers’ minds. Polaroid proved equally incapable of turning itself into a digital-imaging company.
This surprised many analysts who believed Polaroid would have a better chance than Kodak had in competing within the digital arena. ‘Nobody was in a better position than Polaroid to capitalise on digital photography,’ said Peter Post, CEO of Cossette Post, a part of
Ironically, for a brand associated with speed and instantaneity, one of the major criticisms levelled against Polaroid was that it was too slow in reacting to changes in the market. It had failed to anticipate the implications of digital photography, just as it had been unable to respond effectively to the rise in one-hour photo shops a decade before.
The creativity that Edwin Land had displayed when building his company simply wasn’t there anymore. As the famous
‘Business managers are averse to risk. Wall Street people don’t want risks; they want this quarter’s results. But the visionary has a higher respect for the brand.
We have to find a way not to stifle the creative person,’ he said. ‘There’s still more poetry than science in business.’
Another failing attributed to the Polaroid brand is that it is a ‘one-trick pony’. It fought to become the one and only name in instant photography and has now paid the price. Yet brands can evolve. If Polaroid had been clever it could have branded digital products as a logical and even inevitable extension of its instant photography range.
Other experts have concluded that Polaroid should have concentrated less on the specific products it made and more on the particular values it represented to the consumer. Even John Hegarty, the chairman of Polaroid’s advertising agency, joined in this attack. ‘Polaroid’s problem,’ he diagnosed, ‘was that they kept thinking of themselves as a camera. But the “[brand] vision” process taught us something: Polaroid is not a camera – it’s a social lubricant.’
If Polaroid had concentrated on the unique ‘sociable’ aspects of the brand, rather than the unique technological aspects, it would have certainly been less vulnerable when technology overtook its core product offerings. But by the end of the 1990s it had left it too late. Debts were mounting, and the brand was by that point associated with the Polaroid camera. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 caused a slowdown in travel, and consequently a decline in demand for cameras and films. These bleaker market conditions proved too much. By that time Polaroid had amassed debts of almost US $1 billion, and the company’s share value slipped from a high of US $60 in 1997 to a low of 28 cents in October 2001. That same month, the company filed for bankruptcy.
Lessons from Polaroid
- Be quick. Polaroid was slow to anticipate and respond to future trends, such as digital photography and one-hour photo shops.
- Don’t be over-protective. In forcing Kodak out of instant photography, Polaroid was defending its brand at the expense of the market. Very few brands can sustain a product category single-handedly over the long-term. Polaroid therefore went against ‘The Law of the Category’ as formulated by Al and Laura Ries. Namely, that ‘leading brands should promote the category, not the brand.’
- Focus on values, not products. According to Kevin Roberts, the
chief executive of Saatchi and Saatchi, for a brand to be truly successful it needs to become a ‘lovemark’ rather than a ‘trademark’. In other words, the brand needs to inspire passion. Roberts cites Coca-Cola, Nike and Harley Davidson as classic lovemarks. In order to create a lovemark, Polaroid would have needed to focus on its value as a ‘social lubricant’ (to borrow John Hegarty’s phrase). This would have helped to increase Polaroid’s elasticity (see below). US
- Be elastic. Branding author Jack Trout observed that companies are limited to one idea per brand. When that idea is the product itself, as opposed to the values it represents, brands become inflexible.
- Feel it, don’t fight it. Polaroid’s early brand vision was to establish instant photography as a serious artistic medium. However, by the 1970s this vision was undermined by pop artists who loved its fun and frivolous associations. Polaroid resisted this image for too long, just as it resisted other external factors that impacted on the brand.
- Stay relevant. ‘Brands that don’t keep up can get lost quickly,’ says Peter Post of Canadian marketing firm Cosette Post in a brandchannel.com article by John Kavolefski. ‘They first become irrelevant, then invisible, and then they’re gone.’ Instead of exploiting the opportunity offered by digital photography, Polaroid was concentrating on developing a 35mm colour print film.
- Stay creative. ‘A lot of these older brands start to lose any kind of creativity in their strategic thinking,’ says marketing consultant, Bruce Tait in the brandchannel.com article. ‘The whole idea should be to insert originality into the strategic process, and push to be relevant and differentiated.
- There’s too much belief in marketing as a scientific process. People have too few ideas. The leads to sameness in strategy and that’s why brands die.’
- Be essential. With the arrival of digital photography there is no longer a need for Polaroid’s style of instant photography. For instance, whereas building site managers used to rely on Polaroid in their professional life, they now use digital cameras to take on-site pictures. The only exception is in the legal field, as Polaroid film remains the only thing certain courts accept as evidence because it cannot be altered.