Billions of utterly unique, deeply meaningful images
The Kodak Brownie transformed personal human experience, in that it enabled people worldwide to capture, own, and share (note, not in the way we “share” today, but at a genuinely physical, intimate level) images of their own lives.
In a sense, Eastman Kodak was the Ford Motor Co. of modern personal identity. And the deep, sustainable and above all personal meaning that those gawky, prosaic, kiss-me-quick shots offered to consumers was nothing short of immense.
When Kodak eventually invested in some formal brand positioning work, they were able, without effort or loss of credibility, to take global ownership of one, fundamentally human idea.
Kodak decided to own “Memories”. Sounds easy, in a way.
But the key insight here is not that a brand agency then created a marketing and advertising manual, that then enabled all sorts of other agencies to create all sorts of brand communications that cemented their commercial monopoly over Memories.
What we need to grasp is the sheer human impact of the Kodak brand and its technology, but most of all, the cultural and personal weight that the process and the images that emerged represented …
… from lugging that bulky clunky item of luggage on holiday or to a wedding …
… through how to load a film without exposing and ruining it …
… then how to take the film out when you’d finished it, again without exposing it …
… to the simple joy of waiting for your prints to come back in the post or from the pharmacy …
… through to the – often awful, sometime happy, but always very meaningful – shared experience of “our holiday snaps”!
So what happened to Kodak?
Did “Memories” suddenly lose their value? Did a Shawn Fanning sweep in with some illegal Napster or Grokster for photographs?
Well, we can obviously say that “digital happened”. And certainly Kodak was terribly slow off the mark when the digital image came to town.
One senses that the Kodak board saw digital – like so many other industries have … let’s make sure we’re not marching in that number – not as the global cultural earthquake it would shortly become, but more as a supply chain issue with minor implications at the consumer interface: digital cameras at one end, CD’s instead of prints at the other, and so on.
No, it was infinite copy and infinite sharing that did for Kodak.
Because, missing from that formerly unassailable position astride all the world’s “Memories”, was a simple fact that has great relevance for our current discussion. It was the context, not just the content, that created and sustained an awful lot of the Kodak value.
Until we were all joined up by networks, Kodak’s Memories (moments of profound personal and family meaning, if you like) were special, unique, one-of-a-kind, and could only be shared with a privileged few.
In other words, it was not just the images themselves (quality of photo, with a nod to the obvious exceptions, never per se made them intrinsically meaningful) but the severe technical limitations within which they were captured, processed and shared, that gave them their rarity, their exclusivity, and, in the end, their commercial value. It was hard to take them, hard to make them, and very hard indeed to share them.
New players, new rules, bad ending
But when Flickr, PhotoBucket (among countless others) and ultimately, that category killer of all category killers, Facebook, became the new platforms for worldwide photographic activity, meaning and value, that rich, snug, primitive context that gave Kodak’s snapshots their wonderful, now lost significance … disappeared.
And of course, the cameras built into mobile phones threw the iconic snapshot into the eye of the connectivity storm.
It’s universal access and shareability, not just “being digital”, that dilute to oblivion the traditional impact and power of the physical image.
When my photos, yours, Britney’s, Robbie’s and Justin’s, are just confetti in the hurricane of billions upon billions of deeply personal, but somehow now entirely anonymous, meaningless snapshots … what happens to the brands, products and the services that supported them?