Kodak’s (Unfortunate) Arrested Development

The evolution of Eastman Kodak Co's logo (Kodak.com)

For many, the news that American photography pioneer Kodak had filed for bankruptcy last month came as a surprise.  Surprise or not, it was certainly a depressing announcement.

Founded by George Eastman in 1880 (a high school dropout with big ideas), Eastman Kodak brought “toys” like the $1 Brownie and Instamatic to the mass market.   The company dominated the photography industry for years, building a strong reputation for innovation in the U.S.and abroad.   This strong reputation was enjoyed by employees as well, as the company pioneered motivational HR tools such as a “Wage Dividend”, which gave bonuses to employees based on results.  In 1975, Kodak invented the world’s first digital camera. Even Apple’s QuickTake 100 digital camera – the first consumer digital camera – was produced by Kodak with the Apple label.

The brand also became part of American pop culture.  Remember Paul Simon’s 1973 “Kodachrome”?  And “Kodak Moments”?  As a child, I recall sitting in front of the TV entranced by Kodak’s commercial featuring Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.” In recent years, I bought a few Kodak point-and-shoot cameras as I wasn’t interested in committing to a new digital camera (I think it actually makes for better photos because there is something about real film that makes it stand apart from digital + you don’t spend your vacation with your nose to a camera).  But I digress…

Kodal's Instamatic 104 - over 60 million sold by Kodak alone (courtesy of http://camerapedia.wikia.com)

Nostalgia aside, nothing changes the fact that Kodak didn’t, or couldn’t, compete in the digital camera market, despite the fact that they were “there” before anyone.   For Kodak, digital was an afterthought (see Forbes.com’s recent “No More Kodak Moments”), and the company chose instead to continue its focus on film and developing materials.  While all evidence pointed to the growth of digital, it seems that over the years the company simply lost touch with what consumers wanted, leading to its present day situation.  Instead of continuing to innovate, the company fell behind.  After filing Chapter 11 on January 19, it eliminated its digital cameras, pocket video cameras and digital picture frame products, and will now focus on photo printing and licensing its brand name to other manufacturers.

The future remains uncertain but Kodak’s fall from grace offers specific lessons to learn – namely that even companies and organizations with the greatest of brand equity must never fail to evolve and to listen to its consumers.

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