The Kodak Moment – A Critically Endangered Phenomenon

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Do you have a cherished “Kodak Moment” from your childhood?

I don’t.

In the future, I’ll probably be sifting through the cloud to find my beloved photo memories.

Kodak Moments are a dwindling phenomenon, a statement that would astonish anyone born in the twentieth century who had heard the words “camera” or “film.”

Vintage Kodak poster of films photo box that reads "LEAVE YOUR FILMS HERE"
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image courtesy of Museums Victoria on Unsplash

This is a story of evolving technologies and missed opportunities, of a company’s failure to adapt to a changing industry that it helped build.

It’s also a message for leaders to listen to the people with the knowledge, experience, and passion for innovation when they speak up.

Tradition of Success

For more than a century, Eastman Kodak Co. dominated the world of film photography.

It was a mainstay of the motion picture industry; book and magazine publishers relied on it; professional and amateur photographers alike used Kodak products.

A born leader in its field, no other company could touch it for decades until Fujifilm started to slowly peck away at global market share in the ‘80s.

The “classic” telling of the Kodak story includes management’s gross inability to foretell the fortune of digital camera tech.

This story persists despite the fact that Steve Sasson of — you guessed it — Kodak developed the first prototype of a digital camera in 1975.

Steve Sasson posing with the first prototype of a digital camera and more modern ones
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image courtesy of David Duprey on IEEE Spectrum

Kodak leaders knew well of an impending digital renaissance, going so far as to invest billions in the development of digital cameras.

It even spent a prolonged moment at the cutting edge of the burgeoning 2000s online photo-sharing community by acquiring a site called Ofoto.

So where was the fatal misstep?

“You press the button, we do the rest”

The engineers who created the digital camera knew its potential as a product on its own, and they had the market research and increase in demand to prove it.

The leaders at Kodak understood their company to be an orchestrator of events in the film and photography industry.

They wanted to protect the industry and all of its lucrative appendages, which it had so expertly nurtured over the course of its storied history.

Kodak was in the business of making camera film.

That’s where they made their money.

And digital cameras don’t use film.

A roll and box of Kodachrome II color movie film on a yellow background
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image courtesy of Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Instead of committing to growth in a new digital direction, Kodak chose to double down on the business of camera film, of the printed image.

Kodak leaders let the success of the past cloud their judgment of the present and it cost them their future.

As they say, the rest is history.

Conclusion

Digital was not a fad (he writes from his comfortable corner across the internet). It would revolutionize every industry, not just Kodak’s.

Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and has since settled into the market as a much, much smaller version of its former self.

Its branding now focuses heavily on commercial print and advanced materials and chemicals.

It’s still a living company — it found a way to survive a crucial mistake and persist well past the hundred-year mark.

But Kodak is a cautionary tale.

It illustrates the dangers all companies face, 100+-year-old ones notwithstanding, when tides shift in the technological ecosystem.

A phrase that once told the story of a world-renowned imaging company, “Kodak Moment” has now become synonymous with the brand’s downfall.

 

Business and technology are inseparable, and the lines will continue to blur.

The technology we use today will be irrelevant soon (How many AI tools are you using so far in 2023?).

What matters most, and what Kodak was missing, is the relentless willingness to be curious; to ask the right questions, and to have the courage to pursue the creative answers when the old way starts to fail.

Kodak could have been the name we associate with image-sharing.

Now it’s a reminder to back innovation, listen to customers, stay clued into changing technology, and to stay positively curious about where your next step can lead you and your business.

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