Customers, Not Conversations

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Kodak is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, turning to renting out space to tenants on its manufacturing campus, and shopping its 1000+ digital patents (selling intellectual property to stay in business is kind of like giving away your mind in order to stay sane).

The easy explanation for its downfall is that Kodak “missed” the digital tech that similarly caused Blockbuster to collapse. Of course, this isn’t true whatsoever. I can all but guarantee that Kodak’s leaders weren’t stupid, and that they saw that their industry was changing a generation ago. It likely hired McKinsey, BSG, and every other available management consultancy to help it build thick three-ringed binders full of viable business strategies intended to navigate those changes. Granted, you’d have to wade through all the consultantese gibberish about innovation and growth to get to the real stuff, but it was there, I’m sure of it. There was no idea shortage at Kodak.

It just couldn’t communicate its way out of a paper bag.

For all of the innovative thinking going on about digital imaging, printers, and other enhanced business models it was hoping to disrupt, or whatever. Kodak’s marketing was pedestrian, at best, and woefully negligent, at least most recently.

Its mainstream marketing was traditional to the point of irrelevance. Tag lines like “Take Pictures Further,” “Share Moments, Share Life,” and “A Kodak Moment” (the last of which dated from 1961) were catchy but had no legs, no motivational purpose for the brand other than being memorable. It looked good, like pictures, but there was nothing about the marketing that was uniquely Kodak, let alone uniquely prompting to purchase. Fuji or any other brand could say the exact same things. Smart agencies threw creative things at the company that matched the aspirations of its consultant-driven plans, and everyone hoped for the best. And got the worst.

Then came Kodak’s social media experimentation, which was just shy of criminal.

Starting in the mid-2000s, the company started getting heralded for its programs to engage, interact, and implement the other buzzwords favored by new media consultants. It delivered great brand successes using social media in its B2B business; got lots of friends on its Facebook page (even wrote a how-to about it); its international business social media manager was featured in a glowing profile; and its marketing chief was so successful in implementing all of it that he had to quit the company to write books, give speeches, and run a consultancy offering his wisdom to other businesses.

In other words, everyone responsible for Kodak’s social media strategy was brilliantly successful, perhaps best illustrated by a fawing piece in the New York Times about how the company was taking its “moment” tag line and socializing it by creating a technology platform and service for people to share digital pictures. The story gushed with references to the “emotional aspects of the brand” and that the campaign would “woo an archetypal consumer” by making Kodak’s brand equity “more contemporary.” The company was doing exactly what the experts told it to do, and described it exactly the way they were told.

And sales tanked.

How is it that the branding could be so successful and the business such a failure? It speaks to the disconnect between marketing, whether described as traditional or cutting-edge, and the realities of the marketplace.

No real communities were built. Nobody really cared, as nothing the company was providing to the marketplace really mattered. All of the customers engaged in the various campaigns weren’t really involved beyond a passing click or forward. They had no vested interest in the company or its continued existence. It was easy, quick, and pointless. The “social” coming out of Kodak wasn’t really “social” at all. It was just bad marketing.

Imagine instead if Kodak had addressed the challenge of true engagement, and come up with ways to enlist communities that would have had a direct impact on its sales success….so less new media genius, and more integrated business strategy:

  • Could Kodak have become a company that truly belonged to its customers through the products and services it offered? 
  • Could it have defined a new model for operationalizing all of those great management consultant plans, and used social tools to do different, meaningful, and sustainable things with and for its stakeholder groups? 
  • Could its social media strategy been synonymous with its business strategy?

The management challenge wasn’t to innovate, per se, but to see the reality of the situation and address it. The company got lots of innovation, but none of it mattered. Maybe things were destined to turn out this way no matter what it did, but what it chose to do certainly didn’t help change or forestall that outcome. The marketplace demanded real innovation if Kodak was to survive, but instead it got generic, throwaway nonsense.

What a waste. So while all of the architects of this failure go on to promote such stuff for other businesses, we marketers should use this sorry tale to ask ourselves a question:

It’s about customers, not conversations, right?

(Image credit: more than a brand)

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