Anybody in marketing will tell you the importance of working at maintaining the value of a brand. Some industries do it very well – fashion, cosmetics, watches, the prestige end of the car market, airlines and mobile phones to name a few. What about the camera manufacturers?
I ask this question mainly because the idea of brand loyalty has taken a bit of a battering in the photo industry over the last few years. Yes, there has had to be an emphasis on technology because, until recently, it’s been all too easy to fall behind (with, as it happens, catastrophic results for some brands), but what’s happened to the other elements of branding? These are things that go beyond the products – but which indirectly support them – such as design philosophies, heritage and that nebulous concept called ‘a culture’ which really covers anything that might make you want to identify with a brand. I call this ‘the warm and fuzzies’ because it’s often something personal, but it can also be psychological in some way or simply a ‘feel good’ factor. Apple, for example, understands this bit of the branding equation perfectly and has achieved it partially through great product design (even if the functionality is suspect) and partially through clever marketing that primarily emphasises the end-use and, importantly, identifies the end-user. As a result, you really want to belong to the Apple ‘club’ because it looks like a very cool – but still very attractive – place to be. But is it a reciprocal relationship? Well, from what I’ve heard, it mostly is, and it appears Apple takes its customer support and service pretty seriously. I don’t actually own any Apple gear, but every time I’ve been to an Apple store, it’s been a very positive experience… so it’s easy to see why the brand has attracted lots of fiercely loyal users. Yet, for example, in terms of tablets best suited to the needs of photographers, Samsung does a much better job.
Right now, perhaps only Olympus is creating a similar aura around its products, particularly the OM-D series which tick all the brand-building boxes I mentioned above – heritage, a clearly-annunciated design philosophy and attractive marketing. As time goes on, an OM-D culture may even be emerging. Importantly too, Olympus knows what it’s got here and so each new model is more assured than the last... as aptly illustrated by the oh-so-brilliant E-M10.
In the ‘old days’ the lens mount generally locked you into a camera system, but now all bets are off which means the manufacturers have to work much harder at building brand loyalty. There are many new mounts (attached to increasingly desirable mirrorless cameras), adapters galore and affordable multiple lens kits so switching brands is easier than it’s ever been. This is where the ‘warm and fuzzies’ come in, but if you don’t feel this way about a brand, you’ll be a lot more pragmatic about jumping ship. And with the retail market as tight as it is, it’s more difficult to throw in the extras that take your relationship with a camera brand beyond merely a commercial transaction. Yet, to be frank, it has to be done, but it doesn’t have to be all about give-aways or add-ons. At a simple level, merchandising is a hugely effective way of promoting a brand (just ask any major sporting club), although, of course, you have to have first established the necessary level of desirability.
Leica has, of course, and it’s embarking on a major merchandising program which will take its brand to an audience that may not even buy its camera (but may well do once the ‘warm and fuzzies’ have been planted). This is what I call the ‘Ferrari effect’ – the prestige car maker caps its car production volume to maintain exclusivity, but makes many times more money from its extensive lines of branded merchandise. The brand is just so strong that people want to associate with it in any way.
What needs to be understood here is that cameras have never merely been commodities. There’s always been an emotional element, but it needs to be nurtured and the brands that do this best will win the day.
Paul Burrows, Editor.