In 1947, the Polaroid Company introduced the Polaroid Land Camera, named in part for the inventor of instant film technology, Edwin Land. In 1963, they debuted a color print model. Both cameras and their packs of instant film became sensational new products. They solved the problem of waiting days to see the results of a photo session. Polaroid’s photos developed in about a minute or two, beginning as soon as they were pulled from the camera. No doubt some of the earliest selfies were first shot with Polaroid cameras, though the term would wait until the next century to emerge.
Polaroid was a successful product for decades, though its sales were dwarfed by traditional film cameras from a plethora of brands that offered better quality photos at a lower price. But Polaroid owned the instant photo business that, by virtue of their patented technology, no the company was able to duplicate. Many people made great returns on their stock. Camera sales peaked at 14.3 million units in 1978. Archrival Kodak was ordered to pay Polaroid almost $3 billion for patent infringement that same year.
But all was not well with what seemed to be an emerging global brand. A Polaroid movie camera with instant processing failed to catch hold. Something called a “digital” camera began to emerge in the early 1980s and soon a “video” version followed. While Polaroid was not blind to these inventions, their own versions failed to gain traction in the marketplace and they did not control any technology. In 2001, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy, and is now owned by a holding company that licenses the brand for eyewear (e.g., polarized lenses), among a few other categories. Polaroid film is still being made for diehard loyalists, but the cameras are not.
So, what happened to Polaroid? Simply put, it was really just a great product, but never became a great brand. While Polaroid was busy being the very best at instant photo processing, they failed to move from one really great product to the next under the umbrella of a brand that could help them get there. Hindsight may be 20/20 (and sometimes about 50/50), but Polaroid couldn’t see clearly enough that their brand was really about instant gratification and not just instant processing. They missed the boat on one-hour processing, which grabbed some of their market share and, ultimately, they missed the cruise ship that was digital technology, which has made virtually all photography and video instant.
Compare Polaroid to the BMW brand. For much of its early history, BMW was a manufacturer of aircraft engines, which demand high-quality engineering. After World War I, they shifted production to motorcycles and later to automobiles. By the 60s and 70s, they were producing boxy little cars that delivered a sporty ride at a reasonable price. But, about 40 years ago, when Polaroid was reaching its zenith, BMW was able to crystalize a brand strategy with its now iconic slogan, “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” BMW realized that they were not just in the car business; they were in the business of providing a distinctive driving experience. The concept of the brand became that all of their engineering, all of the performance it delivers, even the luxury appointments that add comfort, all are focused on enjoying driving at a high level.
A second element of brilliance in the slogan and, thus, the brand, is that BMW doesn’t even call their product a car, or an auto, or a luxury sedan. It’s a machine. A driving machine. BMW created their own product category with those priceless words and, in so doing, have built a brand that now leads the luxury car market globally. BMW does have boundaries to this great brand and respects them. When asked recently why BMW isn’t even considering entering the pickup truck business, as Mercedes appears ready to do, Ludwig Willisch, CEO of BMW of North America, told Automotive News, “It is always about staying true to the brand. It is about driving, not transporting others.”
Perhaps Ludwig’s brand discipline could have helped Polaroid back in the day. To be fair, Kodak is also a faint shadow of its former glory and had far greater resources to gain a foothold in the digital photography world. Neither did well. Ultimately, both Kodak and Polaroid failed to take their brand beyond the products that originally sustained them, while BMW emerged from the aircraft business to build a new business based, not just on products, but on a durable brand concept.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.