Considering Kodak’s Moment: Lessons for Today’s Business

what the history of kodak can teach photographers today

What’s your Kodak moment? For decades Kodak commercials brought into our homes the importance of using photography to capture and preserve memories. These commercials peppered holiday shows and sports events, when families were together. We remembered the Times of Our Lives and we showed our True Colors. If you’re over 40, I’ll wager there’s a Kodak moment imprint on your life, but if you’re under 40, it probably doesn’t ring a bell.

Once the second most-recognized brand in the world, Kodak dominated and defined photography. Today, the company teeters on the verge of bankruptcy and can be seen as a classic parable for the industry, much as Borders is for booksellers.

For over 130 years the name Kodak was synonymous with the art, science, and business of photography. The company made photography affordable and available to amateurs everywhere — and churned out technical innovations that raised the bar and created untold opportunities for professionals.

I joined Kodak in 1988 and stood in awe at “Kodak Park.” A beehive of activity, trucks and rail cars streamed in from all directions, and state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities hummed everywhere in Rochester and throughout the world. Kodak was a golden American manufacturing icon. At its peak, the company had 150,000 employees worldwide, boasted 16B in annual revenue, and traded as high as $94 share.

Today, EK is a penny stock fighting for survival.

This slide from greatness while not inevitable, was predictable to many of us working on the digital side of the house in the early 90s. The digital revolution was in its nascent stages yet Kodak had brilliant teams all over the country already creating innovative commercial and consumer digital products and services.

Kodak’s rich technology and patent portfolio (did you know Kodak invented the world’s first digital camera?), recognized worldwide leadership, and trusted brand status should have transformed the “Big Yellow Box” from one of the great business successes of the 20th century into a 21st century leader. But that’s not what happened. Kodak had the technical and marketing expertise but lacked the political will to challenge the known and embrace the unknown.

Why? Some might say hubris. But I think the company lost sight of the real value proposition — capturing and preserving precious memories for everyone — not making film. Film was king at Kodak, an entrenched cash cow whose deep revenue and manufacturing process dominated the allegiance of executives. Unwilling to cannibalize the cash cow for the rising star — digital — Kodak sadly ended up as a falling star. Today, a Kodak moment is no longer synonymous with Kodak.

Guy Kawaski tells a great story about ice. Perhaps you’ve heard it. In the 1880s ice harvesters had a thriving business cutting and selling ice, making it possible to store perishables. They were put out of business by the invention of mechanical ice makers, who were in turn put out of business by the invention of the refrigerator. The ice harvesters and ice makers lost sight of the value proposition: keeping things cold — not making the ice.

Great companies or photographers survive changing times and marketplaces by continually seeking an answer to WHY people embrace what they do.

Today, technology makes it incredibly easy to capture cool photos anywhere and distribute them everywhere. But that doesn’t mean everyone can capture great photos — or that they want to.  People still value having their Kodak moment captured by someone they trust.

How do you define your value proposition in these days of ubiquitous photography?

Are you trying to preserve the status quo by clinging to icemaking, or are you preserving perishables by keeping things cold? Are you selling prints or studio time, or are you delivering solutions that capture and preserve moments in unique ways?  And while many professional across the main streets of America have gone digital – it’s still not enough.

Kodak’s sad demise reminds us we have to roll with the times and recognize WHY clients choose you (your unique way of seeing and addressing their needs), not just WHAT you do (make images).  Some things  – like high margin film or controlling reproduction of all your professional shots, and the revenue they represent, are gone for good.  While the value of the photography market has expanded to include products we couldn’t imagine a decade ago. The number of dedicated professionals required to make photographs continues to melt, and that work, like the work of the icemakers or booksellers of the past, simply is not coming back.

As a professional, you can put the focus on the client with a practiced eye and technical talent. And then help the client follow through and ensure the image is not just captured but is also  produced — in a book, as a print, on a blog, or even turned into a gift.You can teach skills to  emerging photographers, demonstrating what and how to make a great photography, thereby increasing the value of your own.

Roll with the times and keep creating those Kodak moments for you, your family, and your customers.  But recognize that as the times of our lives change, sadly, some things change forever.

Guest Post by Georgia McCabe – As an author, speaker, trainer and social media and photography evangelist, her perspectives entitled “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Friends…or Enemies” appear in print in the book entitled The Relationship Age, with social media guru Mari Smith. Georgia is a frequent guest blogger for our professional photo lab.

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