Watch Your Customers

Kodak!  One name that, as I write this, has been in business headlines – they’ve gone bust!  A company at the forefront of photography, the one that can claim to have brought what was a specialist trade into the hands of the masses.  How could the market leader go to the wall?

I recall my student days when I took photographs from both my university paper and for the local city one.  Long before photography went digital, I used film from three companies: Ilford (my day-to-day monochrome film, developed and printed by you’re truly in a university darkroom), Agfa (for a particularly fine grain film when copying documents) and Kodak (nothing would have made me use anything but Kodachrome for colour slides).  When, many years later, I bought my first Canon EOS SLR with auto-focus and sophisticated automatic exposure I also used Fuji colour print film.  Fuji was becoming a big player in the film market and had overtaken all others as Kodak’s main competitor.

I can’t say for certain what Kodak executives were doing and thinking but, from what I’ve read, they focused on fighting for their market share and took on Fuji head-to-head.  That should be no surprise as managers are encouraged to know their competitors and to benchmark themselves – become the best in their market.  But, as is now known, Fuji wasn’t Kodak’s threat.  Being the best in the film business wasn’t going to maintain a company the size of Kodak because the world was going digital.  Film is still used but it’s now a much smaller and principally a specialist market – almost a return to the days before Kodak.  Photography is now much more prevalent but it’s gone digital and millions of people carry cameras with them all the time (built into their mobile phones).  Many of these phone cameras can deliver better quality than was available from many top flight digital cameras available just ten years ago.

Watching their competitors didn’t help Kodak because it wasn’t their competitor bringing the biggest competition.  The market was changing and, perhaps a better approach would have been to watch their customers.

(Posted as a blog 9th July 2012)