How Polaroid Saved Itself From Certain Death

Digital cameras were threatening to kill Polaroid, so the 75-year-old company found a way to use their brand recognition and founding technology to stay relevant.

My first camera was a Polaroid. Like many in my generation, I vividly recall the excitement of waiting for a colorful image to crystalize on the black square film that flew out of the camera. The instant gratification was far superior to the three-to-five-day wait time I had to endure when taking a roll of film to the photo shop to be developed.

Although Polaroid was a worldwide household name, the introduction of digital cameras to the masses in the late '90s caused the company to struggle. Between 2001 and 2009, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy twice. “From 2005 to 2009, we went through six CEOs,” says current CEO and President Scott Hardy. Polaroid realized they had to make a fundamental change and went on a journey of self-discovery.

Banking on the Brand Name

“It was clear to us that the biggest asset we had was the Polaroid brand,” says Hardy. With over 75 years of history, Polaroid is one of the few globally recognized brand names. The company had a reputation of being a leader in innovation; after all, this was a company that had grown from a garage startup in 1937 to a billion-dollar pop-culture phenomenon. Yet, the digitization of photography caused many to view the old Polaroid cameras as obsolete.

Rather than betting the company’s future on a new generation product line, Polaroid decided to leverage its strong, recognizable brand name and enter into strategic license agreements with companies who manufacture modern product categories that aligned with the values the Polaroid brand encapsulated.

“We find these companies that are experts at what they do in specific categories of products and then we carefully oversee every step of the manufacturing process and product approval; as if we’re making it ourselves,” explains Hardy.

But in order to license a brand with an incredibly rich history, Polaroid had to tread carefully so as not to weaken the brand. Before entering into licensing agreements, it went through a process of dissecting the brand’s DNA to understand the attributes the brand embodied and how it was perceived by the customer.

Polarized technology, which was invented by Polaroid Founder Edwin H. Land was first used in goggles supplied to World War II pilots and has since been used in nearly every aspect of visualization, including the polarized sunglasses we wear today. The instant cameras I loved as a child conveyed the concept of sharing. Polaroid cameras were always priced within reach of the average consumer, making affordability one of the brand’s key attributes.

Finding a Way Beyond Instant Photos

With these three traits in mind: visualization, sharing and affordability, Polaroid went out on a venture to find new product categories that would embody the essence of the brand. “We apply those filters to specific categories of products when we make a decision to enter into an adjacent category and building around our core,” says Hardy. While the company’s core business was instant photography, Polaroid has expanded beyond photography; into tablets, televisions and other digital media.

“Every LCD flat-screen television has a polarizer on it. It’s a core component of the technology that allows you to view the picture on a flat-screen TV,” says Hardy. Fulfilling the visualization component of the Polaroid brand as well as the concept of sharing and affordability (by making the televisions at a price point that would appeal to the masses), flat-screen televisions hit on all of the brand attributes Polaroid identified, making this product category a natural fit.

One of Polaroid’s fastest growing product categories is tablets. “Tablets are about being able to view and share your pictures, passively lean back and enjoy content,” says Hardy of how tablets aligned with the Polaroid brand. “Instantly sharing with friends and family has always been part of our DNA.” The ability of licensee Market Maker Brand Licensing to produce tablets at an affordable price point made this product category a natural fit for Polaroid.

In the instant film camera market, Polaroid partnered with a licensee C&A Marketing, an expert in the photo industry, owner of Ritz Camera stores and Calumet photography, to manufacture Polaroid-branded cameras and accessories. “It’s a tremendous partnership,” says Hardy. “They have our core category and are thriving and growing and both companies are winning through this model.”

One of the company’s most successful products is the Polaroid Pic-300, a modern twist on the classic Polaroid camera that instantly prints wallet size photographs. The camera was designed to appeal to the younger generation who view Polaroid as retro and fun.

“Analog photography is unique and special” says Hardy. Products like the Z2300, bridge the gap between analog instant photography and digital photography, allowing the user to instantly print the photograph as well as save the image as a digital file to post on social media or save to a computer. These products have allowed Polaroid to stay relevant in today’s marketplace.

Bottom Line: Polaroid’s incredible resurgence and growth is a result of staying true to the company’s heritage when embracing new technology. “You’ve got to figure out where your brand translates to, what adjacent categories fit and leverage it accordingly by finding the right partners,” says Hardy.

[Image: Flickr user Carolina Alves]

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4 Comments

  • Steven Vp

    What I see when I look at the products that license the Polaroid name are cheep, undesirable tablets, clearance bin photography equipment and quickly discontinued products which rely on consumables that Polaroid no longer produces. What I can't fathom is how Poloroid can't see the resurgence of their signature product, instant film cameras, while fuji dominates the market with it's instax cameras.

  • While it is nice to see the brand, this should not be confused with the company which clearly no longer exists nor makes its iconic products or uses its original IP. The Zinc project and others are more clearly trying to keep the spirit of Polaroid alive for what it is worth and this shows the power of brands, even those no longer associated with their founders, or founding products or roots.

  • Mac Carter

    This a VERY inaccurate article. As Robet Heiblim pointed out, Polaroid went out of existence many years ago. It was bankrupt. It folded and the brand was sold. The products it made are not being made. The people who currently own the brand had nothing to do with the original company, have an inaccurate understanding of its history and use the brand as a marketing tool to sell all kinds of retail products (like TV's). There are some groups of original Polaroid people engaged in trying to keep some of its film products alive.