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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

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

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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. 

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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

About the author

Adam is a brand strategist--he runs Hanft Projects, a NYC-based firm--and is a frequently-published marketing authority and cultural critic. He sits on the Board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and has consulted for companies that include Microsoft, McKinsey, Fidelity and Match.com, as well as many early and mid-stage digital companies.

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