Is Polaroid the New Kodak?

Polaroid has a long history of being an innovator in the camera marketplace, and that’s exactly the problem its facing right now- is the brand history? In recent years it has tried to reinvent itself, but after filing for bankruptcy twice in the last decade and a collaboration with Lady Gaga in 2011 that seems to have gone nowhere, is the brand going to make it?

Polaroid is not alone in the camera market as a brand struggling to survive in the current century. Kodak had a lot of similar issues with its own products, which ultimately led to the company’s dissolution. There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between Polaroid and Kodak in terms of their marketing presence and initial impact on the camera market. Kodak is renowned starting the camera industry, but along the way they made numerous errors that have seen their market share significantly decrease.

George Eastman created the first mass produced Kodak camera in 1888, and the company expanded from this, branching out into film, printers, and eventually digital cameras. The company even experimented with more esoteric products such as pharmaceuticals with the purchase of Sterling Drug Inc in 1988.



However, the Kodak magic started to wane with the massive uptake of digital photography and their digital cameras never managed to get the same traction as their film cameras. Share prices dwindled and the company found itself unable to truly compete in an evolving technological marketplace- reasons for which are slightly unclear. We can partly blame price undercutting used by other brands as a strong armed tactic and potentially the idea that Kodak was reluctant to go digital.

Did Kodak try and stay too focused to its original photography strategy and forget the idea of rebranding, or was the association of Kodak as an old ‘film’ brand something that hindered it from staying successful?

In January 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy and even with a large Citigroup $950 million debtor-in- possession loan the brand continues to flounder. It was just announced that even more staff have been laid off, around 2700 since January 2012 with a further 1000 workers expected to lose their roles later this year. The future does not look good for Kodak, and unless they get serious investors and a large cash injection, the continuation of the company looks bleak.

There are fears that Polaroid’s company trajectory may mirror the Kodak story- another brand with a long history of innovation and nostalgia in the camera market, and one that is not necessarily able to adapt to the changing times.

2012 marks 75 years of Polaroid in business and the company has changed a lot since its early days. Founded in 1937 by Edwin H Land, Land discovered a new way to polarize light while at Harvard, and then went on to create the Polaroid camera brand. This company achieved fame with its Polaroid instant cameras which were released in 1948. These grew to have iconic status and have mass market popularity, with the idea of the instant Polaroid camera an enduring image from the fifties and sixties. Times have not been that kind to the company, who found it hard to maintain their status as a leading camera company in the new digital era.

They briefly saw a surge of popularity in 1999 with the gimmick I-Zone photos which tied into consumers love for retro products- physical prints becoming a rarity in the digital age, but this brief period of profit wasn’t stable. This was seen very clearly when Polaroid filed for bankruptcy in 2001, cutting a minimum of 2000 jobs and selling many of its assets to subsidiaries.

The brand continued, but the original Polaroid Corporation desisted, as it was now managed by an identically named Polaroid Corporation (just to keep things simple). This should have helped change the company’s finances, but it was not a successful move as there was ANOTHER bankruptcy case filed in 2008.

There are many reasons the company might have struggled, and many of the staff were unhappy with how Polaroid adapted to change. Former Vice President (now deceased) Peter Wensberg said,

“They allowed one of the 10 greatest brands in the world to go down the drain. A priceless asset was wasted.”

Can Polaroid recapture its former stake in the market and rise like a phoenix from its recent history, recapturing the golden days of its birth? Though prospects appear bleak on paper, the Polaroid team has been steadily working on trying to make their products necessary and desirable in the marketplace today.

Strategies have included appointing celebrity popstar Lady Gaga as their Creative Director in 2010 and recreating some of their classic models to sell through dedicated outlets (such as Urban Outfitters) which recapture the Polaroid nostalgia.

This sounds great on paper, but the reality isn’t quite as glossy as we’d like.

The initial Lady Gaga announcement was received with huge excitement and a statement from the singer was released, ‘”The Haus of Gaga has been developing prototypes in the vein of fashion/technology/photography innovation, blending the iconic history of Polaroid and instant film with the digital era. Lifestyle, music, art, fashion: I am so excited to extend myself behind the scenes as a designer, and as my father puts it, finally have a real job.”

Polaroid then went on to release The Lady Gaga Polaroid line which consisted of three products, a thermal printer, a camera, and some sci-fi like CAMERA GLASSES that allowed the user to snap pictures whilst looking like an extra from Tron. It has been over a year since these were announced and only one of the three products has debuted- the printer- to very little fanfare, with the two most exciting models nowhere to be seen.

Scott Hardy, President of Polaroid responded to our queries about the Gaga collection (as we fondly refer to it). ‘The Grey Label line of products, such as the GL20 Camera Glasses, is a unique product blend of technology and fashion. We will release them when we feel that all aspects are perfect; up to Polaroid and Lady Gaga’s very high standards.’

It’s understandable that the GL20 Camera Glasses may be more prototype than reality as the technology is so new, but it’s still a shame to have had the teaser with no dessert; especially as Google Glasses and that potentially similar technology is gaining traction.

Polaroid’s other current assets include the aforementioned Urban Outfitters collection and Hardy is more positive about this. “Urban Outfitters carries an assortment of Polaroid brand products. Urban Outfitter’s unique, retro vision parallels our loyalty to classic, instant photography.” Another avenue for nostalgia expansion has been the Impossible Project, a venture started by former Polaroid employees. The last Polaroid factory of instant cameras was scheduled for closure in 2008 when diehard Polaroid fans (and employees) decided to save it and create the iconic cameras for distribution to people who couldn’t live without them. This led to a slight resurgence in popularity of the cameras- with Polaroid’s full support- and the Impossible Project is still creating and distributing today.

It’s all well and good to keep producing retro cameras, but Polaroid needs to move forward if they want to survive.

In light of this, there have been mentions of new and exciting forthcoming releases from Polaroid, to demonstrate that their creative team is still at work on new projects.

In January 2012 Polaroid announced the SC1360 Smart Camera, a camera with an Android interface that looked like a major leap in camera/phone photography, and blurring the distinction between the two with a form factor that’s very familiar. It promised 16 megapixels, a 3x optical zoom and came with a 3.2 inch touchscreen where you could access the Android Market. It looked good, and the features sounded exciting, but we’re now in October 2012 and this hasn’t materialized. In response to this Hardy says, “There is no new information on a release date or price for the SC1630 to share at the moment”, which isn’t exactly forthcoming.

When or if this does get released, it may be too late as other brands are evolving this idea. Nikon, for example just announced the Android powered Nikon Coolpix S800c with a release date next month.

In September 2012 at PhotoKina, Polaroid announced some new models, which help suggest the new avenue they are looking at for the customers. Three sports centric models were released, one camera and two video cameras. The selling features of these was that they all included some form of waterproofing, be it by including it in a waterproof case or making them waterproof for 10 or 20 meters. The models included features such as built in LED light for shooting below water and motion detection sensors, to allow you to capture things like fish. The cameras look pretty impressive and have a nice clean design with attractive price-point of $69.99-$199.99 with a proposed on shelf date of October.

The selection of these particular products as the latest ones to be released by Polaroid, tie into what Scott Hardy, Polaroid’ President refers to as Polaroid’s “core demographic.”

He says that Polaroid has three groups of users and that, the brand “Connects well with middle age families as the average age is 34.5 years, 68% are married and 80% have children.”

In light of this, the following category suggests the recent product launches. He says that Polaroid users are the following:

  1. Photo-Loving Mom (take pictures weekly)
  2. Polaroid Advocate (own/owned Polaroid Products)
  3. Tech Leader (ahead of the curve on technology)

The recent sporty video cameras might be relevant to all three – Moms who want to capture their children’s activities but are concerned about waterproofing and robustness of technology, hardcore fans who are already involved and tech leaders looking for affordable video cameras with interesting technology.

It’s the tech leaders who have probably been most disappointed with the lack of release of the Lady Gaga Grey Line, and it’s these same folks who are drifting away from Polaroid and into apps such as Instagram to fulfil their needs. In fact, one could argue that the rise of apps that create traditional Polaroid like effects and borders are one of the reasons the company is in such financial trouble. They say that  “imitation is the best form of flattery”, but Polaroid needs to make sure it keeps up with the times to stop these services eating into their demographic.

In terms of the future, Hardy says that it’s all about understand brand identity and trying to reach new consumers.

“We have analyzed the core Polaroid brand attributes of sharing, easy to use, and instant gratification, and have ensured that the products we make embrace our DNA.”

Polaroid also recently released an app called the Polaroid Instant for the iPad . They also redesigned their website to allow it to have more social buzz, even creating an area CALLED social buzz and they are active on Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook, engaging well with consumers.

Polaroid financial records have been difficult to ascertain  since 2008 when the company underwent bankruptcy proceedings, so it’s impossible to easily say if they are turning a profit or not. However, with the launch of new products that echo a consumer need and a strategy to really focus on their core consumers, it’s possible that Polaroid may succeed where Kodak failed.


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