One of those iconic brands is Polaroid. Inextricably linked with instant photography, “a Polaroid” can be thought of as both instant camera and instant film. The Polaroid brand was born in 1948 and quickly became a symbol of a generation that craved instant gratification. They got it with Polaroid, first through a photo that emerged from a secretive sandwich that needed to be pulled apart and waved (almost like a magic wand) until the photo mysteriously appeared. Later, with product improvements, the photo simply emerged from the camera and began developing right before the consumer’s eyes.
Polaroid was a genuine American technology success story. Physicist-inventor Dr. Edwin Land conceived the one-step process for developing and printing photos that became known as instant photography. Rob Walker of The New York Times calls Land “a Harvard dropout who attained a Steve Jobsian cultural status as an innovator-businessman. By the time his company began selling its first instant-photo camera in 1948, Land had already applied his discoveries in the realm of light polarization to a variety of products, including sunglasses, film and lighting” (“Consumed: Photo Finish,” March 16, 2008).
Polaroid was a strident protector of both its trademark and its patents. The company won a patent suit against Kodak in 1985 and effectively put Kodak out of the instant photography business, virtually guaranteeing a Polaroid monopoly. Polaroid’s instant-photo technology was so good that it went far beyond the consumer market. The film became valuable to artists, graphic designers and in medical imaging applications.
But in February 2008, Polaroid as a film technology succumbed to an inevitable fate. The company shut down its film manufacturing operations and effectively closed the door on Polaroid instant photography. The reason, of course, was the advent of a whole different kind of “instant”—digital photography. Not surprisingly, digital photography has wreaked havoc on other traditional camera and film makers such as Kodak (another iconic brand that has become a shell of its previous self).
Now here’s the interesting part of the Polaroid brand story: The brand simply refuses to die.
Polaroid is attempting to reinvent itself as a digital company. After going bankrupt and being acquired by Petters Group Worldwide, a company that itself is involved in a messy bankruptcy, Polaroid still managed to introduce the Polaroid PoGo in early 2009. The PoGo is the first digital camera with a built-in printer. It allows the user to preview digital
photos and then print out selected ones instantly. Ironically, the printer uses another company’s technology (ZINK Imaging) to print the photos on a special paper embedded with color, so no inks are required. The product is scheduled for Spring 2009 availability.
But that’s only part of Polaroid’s reinvention. When Polaroid announced it was discontinuing its instant film, Save Polaroid, a grassroots group, began an effort to keep the film in production. Remarkably, in January 2009, an Austrian businessman, Florian Kaps, started “The Impossible Project” to make a Polaroid-like film available once again to people who still own Polaroid cameras. The name for Kaps’ risky project comes from something Polaroid inventor Edwin Land once said: “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.”
Kaps seems to have the passion to make the impossible possible. He founded Polanoid.net, a web-based gallery of Polaroid photography that is the world’s largest, and he has hired former Polaroid employees to create the magic all over again. Here is how Kaps describes the plan on his website:
Impossible b.v. has been founded with the concrete aim to re-invent and re-start production of analog INTEGRAL FILM for vintage Polaroid cameras…
The Impossible mission is NOT to re-build Polaroid Integral film but (with the help of strategic partners) to develop a new product with new characteristics, consisting of new optimised components, produced with a streamlined modern setup. An innovative and fresh analog material, sold under a new brand name that perfectly will match the global re-positioning of Integral Films.
It’s essentially Polaroid film, without the Polaroid name.
To make matters even more intriguing, in late January 2009, a Luxembourg-based private equity firm bid US$ 42 million for the assets of Polaroid. (Polaroid was acquired by Petters Group Worldwide in 2005 for US$ 426 million.) The connection? The private equity firm also invests in ZINK Imaging, the company that makes the paper used in the Polaroid PoGo referenced earlier.
But in April 2009, the intellectual property and brand name of Polaroid were acquired by a US-Canadian joint venture for US$ 86 million. This is the same group that has acquired other bankrupt brands, including Linens ’N Things and Sharper Image. The group plans to market and license the Polaroid brand name globally.
So now an iconic American brand, or what’s left of it, will be reinvented as…who knows what? It’s anybody’s guess if the new Polaroid brand will be an instant success.