KODAK: A Case for Brand Evolution

November 2, 2012

A few days ago, as I was seated in the dentist chair anxiously awaiting the doctor, I found myself staring at a framed cover from a 2003 local lifestyle magazine. The issue featured a list of the top dentists in the area, and evidently, the woman I was seeing had been included in the list.

In the absence of literature about various dental procedures or the back of a cereal box to peruse, I began reading all of the fine print on the framed cover (as much as I could see from my vantage point in the dental chair).  There was reference to a new fashion trend, some to-die-for restaurant, and a call-out specific to the featured list of dentists. I squinted a bit more (perhaps I should have been seeing the eye doctor instead) and saw that it said something akin to “getting your pearly whites ready for any Kodak moment”.

I smiled as I thought of Kodak – that iconic brand synonymous with special moments.

Yet, by 2003 Kodak was far from the iconic powerhouse it had been in the 1970’s or early 80’s. It wasn’t that people no longer valued special moments. It was just that people didn’t necessarily capture them on film. Digital photography was well on its way to being the next great thing, and as the camera feature moved from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have feature on nearly every cell phone, film-based cameras were quickly becoming extinct.

Today, as a consumer brand Kodak is a thing of the past, killed by the inability of the company to anticipate and innovate as the world around it adopted and adapted to the digital age. Sadly, they are not the first, nor will they be the last great brand to suffer from want of evolution.  But as a branding specialist, what I find most intriguing about this is not their lack of creativity and ideation, but rather their inability to elevate their brand’s position to mean something more than film – to give them consumer permission to extend into new technologies.

“Kodak moments” is an idea – a concept that sits above a particular product or technology. It is timeless, and reflects an understanding of the human desire to live and relive moments by capturing them in time. It’s a brilliant platform upon which to build and extend a brand, so long as that brand isn’t intrinsically associated to a specific product or attribute.  With its lack of innovation and product progression, what the Kodak brand was really about was “special moments as long as they are captured on film.”

One of the core tenants of strategic branding is to focus the positioning as much as possible, but focus can be limiting if it hinders a company’s opportunity for growth and expansion. This suggests focus should occur at a conceptual level versus at a functional one. A classic (and horribly overused) example is that of Starbucks. Anyone who has familiarized him/herself with the story behind the Starbucks brand is aware of its “third place positioning”.  Lots of things can be part of that third place, such as coffee, tea, scones, music, games, and so on (I might argue that some of it goes a bit too far, but you get my point). They created a brand platform that gave them ample room to expand into new product offerings to meet consumer demand, so long as it fit within that third place experience.

Bottom line, seeing the Kodak name reminded me that even the strongest of brands – both in terms of once-held market positions and status within consumers’ perception, can become obsolete if they define themselves based on category, technology, product or feature that is potentially fleeting. Brand strength is never absolute, and most definitely should never be taken for granted. Maintaining brand strength is reliant upon moving both product and positioning along a parallel path into the future.