When the digital era arrived and it became painfully clear to established photography companies that they would have to adapt or perish, many of them met the challenge head-on and not only adapted, but became the innovators and leaders. Nikon, Canon, Kodak, FujiFilm, Olympus and others who forged their reputations in the analog past are now seeing surging demand for their digital products.
Polaroid, however, ended up starting the digital age with one hand already tied behind its back. Their instant line of cameras and film were already relegated to a small and ever-shrinking market that had largely turned to a new generation of smaller and easier to use 35mm and APS format cameras. In the end, the instant business wasn’t enough to keep it afloat and the company declared bankruptcy in 2001. The brand however, was kept alive – albeit on life-support – and has traveled a bumpy road to recovery ever since.
Most Canadians’ experience with the Polaroid brand over the last 10 years has been in the form of inexpensive and oddly unrelated products such as portable DVD players, low-end digital cameras and a few small-screen-size LCD TVs. They were typically found a retailers that do not make consumer electronics their mainstay – stores like Canadian Tire, Zellers and Shoppers Drug Mart. Tech review giants like CNET barely paid any attention to these products and consumer reactions could only be described as tepid.
Then, in 2008, the company decided to finally end its relationship with the tiny but intensely loyal group of customers who still used their instant line of cameras: they officially discontinued their instant film production. Even those of us who did not own one of their instant cameras felt a pang of nostalgia at the thought that the iconic white-bordered photos would no longer be a part of our culture.
But signs of a true rebirth have been emerging at Polaroid for a few years. At the 2008 CES, Polaroid set up an elaborate booth to showcase a home media serving platform, known as Freescape that showed a great deal of promise. This was a brand new direction for the company, one that took them from the image creation business into the image (and other media) management, display and sharing business. Though not fully realized, the collection of TVs, set-top boxes and connected digital photo frames possessed a slick user interface and generous support for an array of digital file formats. Freescape never saw the light of day however, and was completely absent from Polaroid’s booth in 2009.
But the 2009 show signaled a return to the instant business for Polaroid, as they debuted a totally new digital camera with a built-in ZINK photo printer. ZINK stands for Zero-Ink, a technology that embeds the colour as crystals on the surface of the print paper, instead of relying on ink cartridges. It’s the digital equivalent of their original instant cameras.
Now, in 2010, this Polaroid for the digital age – known as the PoGo – is ready for the market and is joined by a larger format camera – the 3″x4″ Instant Camera and a dedicated 3″x4″ instant printer, all of which use the same ZINK technology. Though the idea of having a digital camera and printer in one product is intriguing, it’s possible this may be a case of too little, too late, as the market appears to have shifted from wanting instant memories on paper, to wanting instantly-shared memories on social network sites like Facebook.
And in a surprise move that seemingly reverses their earlier decision to trash the instant film business, Polaroid has announced that they will be releasing a redesigned version of their classic OneStep camera, a model they are calling the PIC 1000. Simultaneously, they are partnering with a company called The Impossible Project, to bring back their original PolaroidColor 600 Instant Film, which will work with both the original OneStep and the new PIC 1000.
However neither of these announcements seems to have made as much of an impact on the media coverage of CES as Polaroid’s revelation that they are partnering with pop sensation Lady Gaga, who will become a creative director and “inventor” of new products. It’s still very unclear exactly what Lady Gaga’s contribution will be, beyond the obvious loan of her quirky, fashion-forward image. The press release only offers us a flavour of what’s to come:
“I am so proud to announce my new partnership with Polaroid as the creative director and inventor of specialty projects,” said Lady Gaga. “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–and we are excited to collaborate on these ventures with the Polaroid brand. Lifestyle, music, art, fashion: I am so excited to extend myself behind the scenes as a designer, and to as my father puts it–finally, have a real job.”
There’s no denying that Lady Gaga has unique style all her own, and that her prodigious output of catchy dance/pop songs has created a large and enthusiastic fan base. But can this larger-than-life personality breathe new life into a company that until last year was struggling to figure out what it wanted to be in the 21st century? My guess is that rather than usher in a new line of ground-breaking products, Gaga’s influence will primarily be felt at the retail level where you will see her face er, faces, used to add a much needed dash of sexiness and style to an otherwise bland and forgettable product line up.
Interestingly, Polaroid wasn’t the only consumer electronics brand tying itseld to a music mega-star. In a statement today, LCD TV manufacturer VIZIO – a company best known for their inexpensive yet decent quality HDTVs – has announced that they too have a new creative director: Beyoncé Knowles – Carter. It’s a three-year deal which:
“… grants name and likeness rights to VIZIO for North American advertising, product packaging, web, promotions, public relations and point of sale materials. The partnership will also allow Knowles to participate in the design and performance characteristics of new products from VIZIO’s ever-expanding line of audio, visual and web-enabled products.”
While I get that fans of these stars will be much more likely to buy products that they think their idols have had a hand in designing, it has the opposite effect for me. I find myself wondering if the money spent renting star-power wouldn’t be better invested in the R&D necessary to create genuinely compelling products. But as I am so often reminded by my friends in the product management business, clever marketing that speaks to your target audience is at least, if not more important to the success of your product than actually having a great product.
What’s your take? Is Lady Gaga’s involvement with Polaroid a savvy move that, regardless of actual product design, will have a beneficial impact? Or is it desperate attempt to hitch their wagon to a rising star in the hopes that she will pull the company along with her on her upward journey?