Polaroid and the Slow Death of Instant Photography

Having  abandoned the camera business a year ago, Polaroid announced that it is now fleeing the film business as well.  The final, symbolic demise of the once mind-blowing technology comes as no surprise, given that digital imaging is as ubiquitious as Starbucks locations or screenplays by

Soon, the iconic Polaroid camera will take its final residence in the Land of Retro, where it will be adopted by hipsters, in the same way that they've rediscovered vinyl records, the photobooth, and the Soviet-era Lomo triple-lens camera.

What went wrong seems pretty damn obvious.  Polaroid was so stuck in its model that it couldn't recognize the unstoppage swing away from analog technology to digital, and thus ended up stuck in a mechanical, hard copy world. 

That's the easy answer.  But it's only partially right .  You see, it wasn't just a platform shift that paralyzed them.  It was that the emotional benefit Polaroid offered was being co-opted.   It all goes back to the "What business am I in?" question.  And Polaroid wasn't in the photography business, it was in the instant gratification business.

Remember how those Polaroid pictures -- often still damp and developing before our eyes-- would be passed around at a party or celebration?  It's the same way that a digital camera is passed along now, with everyone squinting at the little screen.  The magical immediacy is a potent force.

There would have been a way for Polaroid to keep that immediacy, but to maintain its differentiation and essence as well. So it would have been a mistake for them to rush into the digital camera business, and be a me-two player with Canon and Olympus and all the others.  The world didn't need, and doesn't need, another digital camera. 

More interesting for Polaroid would have been for them to continue to make instant cameras, but digitize their platform so the images could exist in tangible form, and in pixels as well.  That way, you also could hold your Polaroids in your sticky little margarita hand, and also synch them with your computer.  Permitting you to email them, photoshop them, post them on Match.com, and so on. 

With one fell swoop, Polaroid would be both competitive and differentiated.

At the same time, I would have continually evolved the form factor of the Polaroid camera itself.  There was a huge opportunity to turn the Polarid into a fetish object, something to be fondled and worshipped, like Apple has done so brilliantly. 

It would have worked.  Consumers have a deep emotional connection to Polaroid.  It evokes powerful imprints.  They would have rushed to a new expression of the brand that kept its charming mechanical magic but opened it up to the digital world at the same time.

It would have taken a new path for Polaroid to succeed in the new digital world, -- not duplicating the conventional camera makers.  But hey, isn't that what made Polaroid, Polaroid in the first place

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