Polaroid’s approach to marketing: Then and now
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When you think of instant photography, the first name that comes to mind is Polaroid—the brand that made the crazy invention of printing a photograph as soon as it’s taken.
Polaroid was founded over 75 years ago in 1937 by the American scientist and Polaroid founder Edwin Land. In 1944, Land was on a family vacation, and on one of the days, his three-year-old daughter asked why she couldn’t see the pictures she had taken now instead of later.
This struck a chord with Land, and a child’s question launched what changed the dynamics of the photographic landscape in the world.
The first instant photo camera, Polaroid LandModel 95, was launched in 1948, four years after its discovery.
It had two separate positive and negative camera rolls that allowed the image to be developed within the camera—a completely new concept in a time where even photography was luxury, let alone a device that gave you access to it instantly.
Since then, the brand has been running at an intersection of technology, innovation, art, and photography.
From 535 patents after Land’s name and $3 billion annual revenue at the time of his death to filing for bankruptcy and regaining legacy again—Polaroid’s marketing journey has been nothing less than a rollercoaster ride.
Polaroid’s evolution from a small instant photo camera and film manufacturer to a tech-powered photography giant shows how much the brand has grown since its inception in 1948. While we'll dive into the specifics later, here's a rundown on Polaroid’s major marketing milestones:
1934- Polaroid Light Polarizing Filters for the Eastman Kodak Company
1937- Polaroid Corporation was formed
1944- Camera idea struck Land during a vacation
1948- Launched the first instant photo camera
1961- Collaborated with artists and photographers for the Polaroid Collection
1965- Launched the Swinger camera, and the jingle went viral
1975- Kodak came to the market, and Polaroid’s popularity tanked
1997- Collaborated on a campaign with Spice Girls
2001- Filed for bankruptcy
2008- Announced an end to film products manufacturing; however, revived again with the Impossible Project
2009- Introduced modern product categories and acquired by Knight’s Bridge Capital Partners
2010- Collaborated with Lady Gaga and entered into a five-year contract
2015- Experimented with more tech-innovative products
The early days of Polaroid
Polaroid came into existence much before the first instant photo camera was launched by Land in 1948.
During the second world war, Polaroid developed a new process for creating 3D images. The army and navy wanted to use them for coded pictures, and this was the first time Land’s polarising filter was united with photography.
However, after the war, this technology was no longer required for aerial reconnaissance but turned out to be perfect for 3D movies. After this, Land got more interested in developing photographic technology for commercial use.
After years of trial and error, understanding camera tech and film, Land cracked it. Along with his Harvard physics lecturer, George Wheelwright, Edwin learned how to manufacture the camera commercially.
Following this discovery, they invented the Polaroid Light Polarizing Filters—commonly used for different presets for photography purposes—for the Eastman Kodak Company in 1934.
Polaroid Corporation was formed three years later, in 1937.
Polaroid only manufactured 60 copies of the camera at first, but they seriously underestimated this new invention’s demand and potential popularity. All units and film sold out in one day, and that’s precisely how Polaroid put themselves on the map, not just as a manufacturer but as a product innovator.
The Polaroid Project; Intersection of technology and art
Photography is an art, and Polaroid held this statement to its heart.
In the 1960s, Polaroid recruited three talented artists, David Hockney, Ansel Adams, and Andy Warhol, to test its products. However, there was a catch!
These artists got cameras, free film, and studio space from the company to take photographs of whatever they wanted, as long as they shared the finished prints with the Collections Committee.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, this International Polaroid Collection increased as more artists applied for camera and film grants from across the world.
This led to popularity, word of mouth, and brand awareness—a classic marketing move.
In 2018, this legendary collection was presented in a museum in Hamburg, Germany, as the Polaroid Project. It did not just feature photographs taken through the camera and film but also advanced the Polaroid story and the technology that made it possible.
It was a visual narrative, an acclaimed exhibition which, after traveling around the world, rests in the MIT Museum today—located one block from the place where the instant film was first invented. The collection includes 250 pieces of original work by 175 artists exploring the different dimensions of the art and technology intersection.
Bankruptcy and revival; The 2000s
In 1975, Polaroid’s fiercest competitor, Kodak, entered the market with its digital camera. Ironically, at the time, Polaroid already had a digital camera prototype ready, but they underestimated the concept and thought consumers wouldn’t be prepared for it.
No doubt Polaroid made the right move because it took a while for the market to adapt to this new technology. However, in the 90s, digital cameras saw a major spike, and Kodak led the charge.
After refusing to launch their own digital product and swimming in debt for over 13 years as consumer and market preferences did not align with Polaroid’s product timeline, the corporation filed for bankruptcy in 2001. Following this, they killed the production of their analog film products in 2008.
The Impossible Project
Once Fujifilms took over the market after Polaroid ceased the production of film products, it seemed like an end to the Polaroid era.
However, the revival quickly took place with the Impossible Project.
Surprisingly, in 2008, few photography fans saved the last instant photography factory in the world—situated in the Netherlands.
They had plans for resurrecting the factory so they could begin production again, but it wasn’t an easy job as machines were broken, chemical formulas were lost, and suppliers were out of business.
Despite these hardships, the team performed a miracle, got the factory up and running again, and released a range of black and white color films.
Since then, Polaroid has been the only company creating and selling films for these new and vintage cameras.
A step beyond cameras
In 2009, C&A Marketing, an innovative technology design company, took over Polaroid’s instant film camera products. They focused on innovating in modern product categories, like digital printers and sports cameras, while ensuring they still align with the true essence of the Polaroid brand.
Over the years, Polaroid has launched a new suite of products for various devices and purposes like iPhone photography, consumer and commercial 3D printing, camera drones, and other aerial photography equipment.
They have also expanded to tablets, televisions, and other digital media through a range of partnerships and strategic license agreements—thus, making Polaroid a tech-enabled brand.
New product launches
Since its inception, Polaroid has innovated and invented a host of devices with different technological capacities. Let’s look at some popular ones:
- Polaroid Pic-300 was a modern spin on the classic Polaroid camera and instantly printed wallet-size photographs.
- The Polaroid Z2300 successfully merged analog and digital photography, allowing users to instantly print photographs and save them as digital files—a practical solution since this was invented when the internet and social media had just started picking pace.
- In 2015, Cube, an entry-level GoPro-like action camera, was introduced, which C&A called a “calculated risk,” but which paid off well.
- The Polaroid Zip was an instant inkless mobile printer that produced two-by-three-inch smartphone snaps and quickly became a popular choice for the younger generation.
- The Polaroid Pop’s newest instant digital camera combines modern digital technology with the classic three-by-four Polaroid instant print format.
These products allowed Polaroid to stay relevant by balancing the retro and old school vibe with modern technology in today’s marketplace.
Their mission was simple—remain true to the fun and engaging spirit of the first-generation Polaroid while making strides in innovation to bring new products with a diversified approach.
Polaroid has made major strides despite going to the brim of bankruptcy and being acquired by a firm. Their largest employee size was 21,000, and their highest annual revenue was $3 million. Moreover, the popularity is only rising as the brand plans to release festive-oriented and premium collection instant photo cameras.
According to the NPD Research Group, in 2016, 3.5 million units of instant print cameras were sold, increasing Polaroid camera sales by 166% in 12 months.
The instant camera market has also seen steady growth over the years, with an annual growth rate touching 16% between the years 2013-2016. Presently, Polaroid competes with Fujifilms, and both are in a constant neck-to-neck with pricing, products, and even campaigns.
However, Polaroid has a track record of consistent results and customer-loved products. Let’s break down their strategy and see what Polaroid is doing today to become an industry leader:
- Ruling the marketing game with influencers and some traditional methods
Polaroid is a concept based on instant photo sharing. Does that ring a bell? That’s exactly the concept with which Instagram was started, and so it’s safe to say that in the 40s, Polaroid was a social network in itself.
Today Polaroid leads with influencer marketing and works closely with Social Native—a marketplace technology connecting over 14 million independent creators with brands for creating User-Generated Content (UGC).
Since the idea behind Polaroid is instant-sharing, no other platform aligns with them better than Instagram since it's an intersection of digital and film. Thus, their marketing strategy is majorly focused on Instagram.
By 2015, over a million Instagram posts had #polaroid without the brand ever making a move to promote it themselves.
So, it made sense for Polaroid to invest their resources and budget to Instagram for amplifying their reach and exposure. Following this, they created content and planned campaigns to build an organic audience before shelling out money on paid marketing.
They achieved this through collaborations and innovative campaigns. The brand has been working with Lady Gaga for the past couple of years and has seen tremendous success.
It’s been a great strategy to reach that younger demographic, in the 18-25 age bracket, which represents the upcoming next-generation Polaroid users.
Besides being at the forefront of Instagram and influencer marketing, Polaroid constantly engages in classical marketing vehicles like PR, magazines, and media buy-ins.
Their strategy is to go big on retailers and establish a solid online presence with social media while focusing less on television and big media buys. Leveraging viral media has been a key goal for the brand—be it Facebook or Twitter—they’re always experimenting with their content and campaigns.
- Tailor-made experiences for different audiences
While you can argue that audiences of any age can use Polaroids, their major target audience is moms, who they often call Chief Memory Officers. This is based on the fact that mothers want to capture every moment, especially when their child is growing up, and what's better than instant photos for memories.
Polaroid has experimented with social campaigns, festive-related commercials, and discount coupons to appeal to this audience. However, something else worked like a charm. The brand launched a unique retail conception partnership with startup Fotobar. Consumers could bring their smartphones or cameras into the store, select photos, and turn them into hand-crafted art on canvas, bamboo, or whatever background they want.
This was quite a creative idea, which contributed to its popularity. With Fotobar, consumers could develop photos and turn them into art for decoration at home or simply use it as a gift for someone.
Apart from the mom segment, Polaroid has also made progress in tapping into the kids market by introducing a tablet with preloaded books, games, and YouTube channels.
This includes an individual app store already screened and approved for viewing, thus earning the confidence of the youngest generation of Polaroid users.
- Shift from product to customer experience
A legendary brand is not formed on the bones of product manufacturing—it’s the overall customer experience that gets repeat sales, loyal customers, and incoming referrals.
Over the years, Polaroid has evolved into a brand that focused a lot on functionality, but now it also focuses on aesthetics, given how much consumers care about it.
In a 2001 PR campaign, the Polaroid camera was marketed as a fashion accessory. And today, it’s a staple from festivals to modeling agencies where they’re used for headshots.
The brand also became a sponsor for popular events and took steps to foster relationships with the most creative minds across industries.
Polaroid's other interesting ventures include launching an innovative pair of sneakers with Puma.
A line of cameras in the Barbie theme to appeal to kids.
And ongoing collaborations with Lady Gaga to the extent that they made her the creative director in 2010.
The CEO of Polaroid, Oskar Smolokowski, while talking about positioning Polaroid as an alternative to smartphones for clicking images, said, “Customers are starting to react to digital overload and missing life beyond a glass screen. It’s about how we can encourage people to live their values outside of the product.”
This explains the constant innovation that surrounds the Polaroid brand today, dedicated to providing excellent customer experiences.
- On-brand commercials and campaigns
Apart from creative product releases, technology innovations, and laser-focused audience engagement strategy, Polaroid has a track record of on-point advertising and marketing campaigns.
Polaroid has come a long way from explaining how the cameras work to using abstract and social concepts to promote the brand and products. It has changed how the world looks at instant photography by making it a lifestyle choice rather than a simple device to click images.
Let’s look at a quick recap of some prominent marketing moments:
- The swinger camera was launched in 1965. It was promoted with a jingle that broke down the process of using the camera. This was the first time the band took a non-conventional approach to show people how Polaroid cameras work and became a huge hit.
They also launched a print and video campaign with the Spice Girls in 1997.
- In 2015, Polaroid’s Tableau Vivant advertisement was a 45-second video filmed in one single shot. It showcased a family room squeezed to the small size of a Polaroid photograph with the slogan—Bring people together. This was after the brand took a long hiatus and went through two bankruptcies. Given how awesome the concept and direction of this advertisement were, it won a Golden Gate Award.
- Owing to the pandemic, brands have become very creative and sensitive with how they advertise products, and Polaroid’s 2020 advertisement did just that, with a twist. It showed two people in one room communicating through a Polaroid picture.
- It’s a known fact that singer Taylor Swift has a special love for instant photo cameras. For this reason, she paid homage to the brand through one of her albums, 1989.
- Nostalgia marketing and finding its roots through marketing
Ask consumers a few years back, and they would agree instant photography has no future, but with the new generation kids, or the millennials and GenZ, it’s just beginning. These consumers have been newly exposed to instant-photo sharing in a film format, which is different from what they’re used to seeing—digital images and social media sharing platforms.
For them, Polaroids are a way to live the past. They’re cool, retro, and trendy, making them a popular purchase among new-generation kids.
It’s more like a trend stretching way beyond instant photography. From vinyl records to vintage gaming and flip phones, nostalgia branding will likely stick around and become a powerful marketing vehicle as an alternative to fast-paced technological advancements.
This is good news for brands like Polaroid, which can cash on the concept of nostalgia, vintage, retro, and old school. What was old has become new, and the brand has also started using this in their messaging, especially for GenZ.
Polaroid: More than just cameras
Polaroid has emerged as a proud brand, who is never ready to back out of the game through ups and downs, competitive brands, failed products, resurrected factories, and bankruptcies.
Despite prominent challenges, the brand has continued investing in innovations, products, better marketing strategies, more accurate customer insights, and other investments.
Not just this, but even consumers have glorified the unique concept of instant photo sharing to the extent that the brand hasn’t lost its charm despite being around for 75 years.
All this is a result of audience engagement, constantly evolving products, customer needs analysis for better inclusions, and ultimately, the power of nostalgia in marketing to take the brand to where it is today.