61 - Clay Feet

How “Ease of Capture” Held Kodak Captive

Why Kodak’s heavy brand anchor put the alchemists of “easy” in a difficult spot.

As the leadership team of Kodak’s digital camera business, they were responsible for the core digital product, the one that would carry the consumer brand into the digital age. They were boisterous, enthusiastic, and certainly opinionated, but they were also a good group of leaders who respected each other and enjoyed working together. They were smart, often creative, and they listened—to each other and especially to the consumer.

That was the discouraging part, because the data kept suggesting that the historically relevant brand headlining their consumer product—the digital camera—was no longer able to sustain the business, implausible though that may have seemed. Kodak, that household moniker for memories, was losing its relevance to consumers. The business leaders in that room needed to pay attention to their soft-spoken CMO, Pierre, who stood before them.

Digital photography was, in 2002, already fast becoming the means by which people preferred to take pictures. With it, they could capture memorable moments immediately, enjoy them onscreen and share them instantly. (The dominance of mobile devices in imaging was still on the horizon.) Picture quality was a function of sensors and zoom length for lenses, which is largely still the case. At the time, longer zoom length and more powerful sensors (to capture as much or even more light than film) were a strong argument for digital superiority in the minds of consumers. It was a great development for Kodak, with their competitive image and lens technology, that was, by some measures, superior to what their competitors offered. Yet, ominously, Kodak digital cameras were consistently outsold by their counterparts from Sony and Canon. Pierre and his team had gone off to figure out why.

They sought to discover what we called the “Vector of Differentiation” for Kodak digital cameras. Pierre’s research led him to the insight that the Kodak brand was anchored, in the consumer’s mind, on the “ease of photo capture” it delivered. This was not entirely surprising. After all, George Eastman’s genius was to render so simple the complex chemistry of film and the development of images into prints that, as the advertising for the Brownie camera claimed, “you push the button, we’ll do the rest.” And “the rest” consisted of an “imaging chain” that Kodak had taken years to perfect, and which had proved highly profitable for many years.

The insights Pierre returned with, and was about to share, were positive and frightening all at once. The brand was firmly ensconced in a secure and enviable spot—right in the place where consumers could expect the complicated to be made simple. Kodak and “easy” were synonymous. The heart of the brand’s relevance to consumers was that a difficult, finicky chemical process and temperature-dependent reactions were simplified and reduced to a simple trip back and forth from the photo-finisher to drop off film and pick up prints. Consumers viscerally identified with the brand because it made image capture accessible and easy, so they had chosen it as the preserver of their memories for generations.

Yet, in the circumstances Pierre and his team faced, in part because of Kodak’s own success, “easy” had become the standard for photo capture, and consumers grew less and less concerned about the very thing to which Kodak’s brand relevance was anchored. It was a sobering reality—likely fatal if not quickly addressed. Furthermore, in the mind of the consumer, the relevance of Kodak’s digital brand was simply a projection of its film brand. At the new dawn of digital, the capture and storage of an image happened instantaneously and with little fuss, and so “ease of capture” was as obsolete as the click of a shutter.

The much-sought permanence of Kodak’s brand anchor held, but it now threatened to sink the company. This was a full-on identity crisis.

It got worse. Despite its positives, a negative side of “easy” was that it exposed feelings like “low tech, cheap, and throwaway” for consumers—identifiers that Kodak had often embraced, as with the “throwaway camera”, whose components were in fact 90% reused through refined processing techniques. But quickly, those identifiers became huge liabilities in the new space of digital that demanded visible technical expertise, precision and excellence. Kodak’s genius had always been performed in the dark, literally.

Although Kodak’s digital cameras took pictures of equal quality, consumers had trouble believing that a Kodak product was as technically sophisticated as a Canon, a Sony, or later, an Apple. In the mind of the consumer, those brands operated in the realm of lenses, microchips, and electronic technology, which were the new essentials for great consumer photography. Kodak was perceived as a film brand that made things easy—what help could they offer in the complicated digital domain?

At the start, Kodak was able to craft its own identity and build its brand as it wished. But over time, ownership of the brand was transferred. Kodak’s identity became publicly held. Even though the digital camera was an invention of Kodak labs, the Kodak brand was not granted credibility in digital because the brand identity associated with “ease of capture” had become a boundary.

As for Pierre and his team, they had located another user experience to which the brand might prove its usefulness, and so they began to heave on the anchor of “easy” to relocate it from the confines of “capture”. The consumer photography problem Kodak could make easy in the digital world was the sharing of pictures (memories), and relevance was slowly recaptured with a movement toward “EasyShare”. Market share recovered, both globally and in the US (holding top spot there for a time), and profitability returned. Revolutionary products, like the first Wi-Fi native digital camera, introduced in 2005 and primed to help people share online with ease, returned to Kodak’s lineup.

Unfortunately, Kodak never fully explored the newly discovered “vector of differentiation” because of some internal dynamics and strategy decisions over which my friends on the digital camera team had little influence. But that is a story about identity and company culture that we’ll explore later.

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