Above: A graphic derived from the classic Kodak logo. Credit: Oscopic.


The business case-history of Kodak can be--and is regularly--freely interpreted in terms of the management's strategic errors through the years of the transition from analog to digital in mass-market photo (circa 1990-2010). Kodak, a leading maker of analog photo materials (film, paper, chemicals, etc.) since 1888, was well-aware of the coming of digital photography, however, through a thirty-year period, with analog revenues declining, the company's management (through several different serving CEOs) made a series of strategic mis-steps as they repeatedly entered the digital market with electronics products that bombed. The company lost its way, and eventually filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012. After 2012, Kodak re-emerged as a shadow of the major US company it once had been--now mainly involved in the business copier-printing market.

Looking back, in hindsight, which is easy to do of course, it seems clear (to me) that Kodak could have survived, and with tremendous brand-name integrity intact, if they had actually done the one thing that everyone warned them not to do: treat digital as a reviled and feared "enemy." I think they should have just kept on making their analog paper, film and chemicals products--and not much else--and damn the consequences.

Sometimes things happen--events; the world changes. The classic business advice is that if you don't adapt then you're dead. But sometimes there is no possibility to react without destroying your integrity. In the case of psychoanalysis, for example, the equivalent of digital has been the rise of cognitive therapies and pharmacological solutions to personal mental-health issues. In the face of these new trends, psychoanalysis cannot, and does not react. It has integrity as an approach to mental health. It may be in competition with other more popular approaches, but so what? If it is not as popular as it once was, then so be it.

In other words, Kodak's principal error was to perceive downsizing as unthinkable and unimaginable. If the company management had had astonishing foresight, they might have predicted that in the midst of the digital revolution there would always remain a core market for those involved in the old ways of photography. Rather than saying "our brand stands for excellence in analog photo-consumables," the higher-ups decided instead that "our brand stands for facilitating snapshot photography in the mass-market, how-so-ever that be carried on."

Looking back, the company could have taken a hyper-conservative approach to the competition from digital: offering a more traditional alternative to it, and being confident that there would always be at least some demand for analog film, paper and chemicals. If they had done that, the brand would likely have held strong, and so remained a go-to name in a market that is now once again growing.

It is idiotic (to me) that Kodak is now building its brand in the office printing-supplies market-place when its analog photo-products have been basic (and unavoidable) for photographers through the twentieth-century--many of the most famous and celebrated photos ever taken have been shot on Kodak film, and printed on Kodak paper using Kodak chemicals. At some point, a brand's core values or DNA has to be respected--even if that means one's market is temporarily declining. Growth is not everything. Brand integrity is everything.

(17 September 2018)