Kodak’s Moment: The Rise And Fall Of The Camera King

Kodak Film Sign Vintage

Kodak is synonymous with photography. Even now, over 140 years after it was founded, Kodak still means photos, but its reputation has changed. Despite its history, The Eastman Kodak Company, which now simply goes by Kodak, hasn’t been a power player in roughly thirty years. Even though Kodak taught the world how to take pictures, what to take pictures of, and successfully drove most photography tech developments for a century, it did not shift in the digital era. And as a result, it lost market share and faded from sight.

Kodak successfully shifted on many occasions in the twentieth century, and even drove many market shifts with its own . So why did Kodak fail in its digital shift? The company's perspective was off.

As Gary Keller explains in SHIFT, there are three approaches in a market shift:

  1. Those who fearfully predict the worst and are unnecessarily pessimistic.
  2. Those who wish for the best, believe they can’t fail, and are unrealistically positive.
  3. Those who respect the fact that they might fail, prepare for the worst, and strive for the best.

Kodak was firmly in category three for much of its history. This drove innovations and a desire to be the leader in all things film and photography. But when digital cameras became the instrument of choice, Kodak slipped into category two, unrealistically believing in the future of film. Given Kodak’s history, it’s not hard to see why its loyalty to film, however misguided, was so strong.

The Camera King

Founded in 1880, for most of the twentieth century Kodak was the undisputed king of photography and film. Kodak began its rise by introducing photography and cameras to , developing prints for hobbyists who did not want to learn the complexities of film. Kodak’s power only increased, and in the 1950s Kodak controlled nearly of the US film production market. Most pictures were not only taken with a Kodak camera, but on Kodak film, printed on Kodak paper using Kodak chemicals, and made possible by Kodak technology.

Kodak Camera advertisement vintage

Advertisement for the Kodak camera, artist unknown, George Eastman Museum, 1889

In the 1970s the company introduced the wildly popular “” marketing campaign and slogan, which ran well into the 1990s. If you don’t remember “Kodak Moment,” go ask your parents, they almost certainly will. “Kodak Moment” became an idiom used by everyday Americans to mean something worth capturing, connecting Kodak with the most meaningful moments in people’s lives.

In the 1990s digital cameras were on the rise, but Kodak did not completely ignore digital photography as many have speculated. Kodak sold digital cameras throughout the ’90s, and it was a who invented the first digital camera in the 1970s. But Kodak did not see them as a major threat to the film market. Executives believed that digital was predominately a fad, and that “real photographers” would still use film as their primary method. Film was Kodak’s bread and butter, and Kodak knew film better than anyone else.

But in 2004 trouble began to brew for the company. For the first time, overtook film sales. Kodak continued to make digital cameras throughout these years but did not emphasize them enough. By 2006 digital cameras were starting to dominate the market and had resolutely overtaken film as the photography method of choice.

The King Is Dead

Camera sales had always been secondary at Kodak. The company dominated in the film business first and foremost. Kodak was the expert at producing film, developing photos, and creating the best chemical practices for both for well over one hundred years. Its emphasis on the importance of film remained a blind spot in the rise of the digital revolution.

In the early aughts, Kodak ran away from a seismic market shift. As Gary says in SHIFT, “To survive a shift you must first make the mental shift to run toward what you most want and avoid the temptation of running away from what you most fear.” Kodak most feared the disappearance of film, which is exactly what was happening as everyone bought digital cameras and started saving their cherished memories on computers instead of in photo albums. Instead of facing the tough facts and shifting when it encountered a market shift, Kodak stuck its head in the sand.

In 2005 Kodak was the market leader in digital camera sales, but by a relatively small margin compared to its absolute dominance in film sales in previous decades. In 2010 the company fell behind Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Samsung in digital camera sales globally. At this time, it also switched focus to consumer printers and had to compete with HP and other well-known producers in that space; Kodak was still clinging to printing processes when the opportunity to advance technology in the digital camera space was staring the company in the face.

Kodak in 2012. Coming out of bankruptcy in 2013, Kodak switched its focus to global commercial printing and imaging with an emphasis on pharmaceuticals. Following the COVID-19 Pandemic, Kodak saw an opportunity to rebrand itself. It plans to expand under its Advanced Materials & Chemicals Division. This might sound out of left field, but Kodak has always had a hand in chemical processes from its early days of film production. Kodak continues to cling to the realm of film in one way or another. But revenue remains low, and it does not seem like Kodak will ever return to its position of power.

Quoting James Yorke, a mathematics and physics professor, SHIFT reminds us that “the most successful people are those who are good at plan B.” When the digital revolution affected Kodak’s plan, Kodak did not plan effective change. Kodak did not have a good plan B. It clung to film while its competitors saw the digital opportunity.

Long Live The King

Kodak’s primary misstep in the early 2000s was not ignoring digital camera technology completely, but rather not emphasizing it enough. Though, the digital camera business is not the juggernaut it once was given the rise of cellphone photography (which is in its own ). Kodak would have needed to jump on the digital camera revolution in the early aughts, and then would have needed to pivot again to the cellphone camera space a decade later (which no camera company is handling well right now). But Kodak did have a pattern of shifting to different technologies for over century, including a shift to color film, then to moving pictures, and again to color in the movies.

As SHIFT teaches us, “Successful people shift. Always. Continuously. Relentlessly. Whether it is in response to the market or their own goals, high achievers are always changing.”

If Kodak had remained on the forefront of technology and shifted as successfully in the twenty-first century as it had in the twentieth, it’s not hard to imagine an alternate world where we use smartphone cameras enabled by Kodak technology and share “Kodak Moments” on social media.

Let Kodak’s fall be a lesson to you: where in your business are you holding onto strengths that no longer match market reality? Do you have a plan B strong enough to help your organization pivot? When the market shifts, you must shift with it.

You can let us know what your Plan B is on our or share what market shifts you think are coming. And don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter for additional research and models.

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