Human preferences are often fickle. Yep, I said it and I believe it because in my short 10 year career working at gap intelligence and watching many markets from paper to smartphones, I have seen consumer preferences go through a similar cycle. There is a saying that we always want what we don’t have – you know, if you have straight hair you want curly hair and vice versa. The same holds true with trends within the consumer segment. We want big smartphones…we want small smartphones….we want digital smartwatches…we want smartwatches that look like regular watches….we want tablets…we want tablets with keyboards (notebooks)….and the list goes on. In other words, what is old eventually becomes new again.
Instant Gratification Never Gets Old
For people of my generation and older, we all remember the Polaroid camera as that cool device that gave you instant gratification in a time when there was very little of that. With film as the typical photo printing medium at the time, you had to wait a week to get your pictures back from being developed. The Polaroid camera was part of the instant gratification revolution that we are very much in the midst of right now. Like all things, instant was replaced with something better. And at that time, it was with digital. Who needs to print a picture when we can store as many photos as we want on our computers and soon enough smartphones? Everyone thought the Polaroid camera was gone for good. If you were lucky, you could find one in a vintage shop and reflect on the good ol’ times.
About seven years ago, the Polaroid brand was licensed and paired with a new technology called Zink or Zero Ink. The technology was extremely niche and aimed to address two primary pain points. The first was the high cost of ink supplies associated with photo printing and the second was the desire to have a portable printer to instantly print photos. Essentially, Zink was part of the print industry’s attempt to maintain printing at a time of decline. The Polaroid brand seemed to be a logical choice considering its history with instant photography. Part of the problem was that many people in the target demographic at the time, millennials, had never heard of Polaroid or had known its ‘magic’. The Zink products remained niche and turned into seasonal novelties featuring less than wonderful photo quality and high prices. Two things that definitely don’t drive printing.
Vintage is cool
Fast forward to when social media rules and millennials have expendable income and what do you know? What is old has suddenly become new again. Take a look around at what is currently (back) in style with fashion, toys, cars, and even food. Many of the current trends existed at some time or another. Vintage shops are often popular tourist attractions and those velour jumpsuits you had in the early 2000’s – well, it might be time to pull those out again soon.
It is no secret that the print, printing paper, and digital camera industries are experiencing continuous decline right now and seeking ways to capture consumer attention. When managing the decline of a market, there are several strategies that industries and companies can utilize. Among them is resurrecting older trends that are primed to make a revival due to the novelty of vintage. Another strategy is to change the conversation. The attention that products in the instant photography segment have received recently accomplishes both of these needs.
Changing the Conversation
One strategy to combat a declining market and to continue to show innovation is to take a positive stance rather than defensive. Yes, at home photo printing is declining. No need to put more attention on this fact. Rather, companies such as HP and FujiFilm are promoting products that buck this trend. They are focusing on millennials and how they desire to print or share memories. This generation didn’t have access to the original Polaroid cameras and film but they are intrigued by the vintage products that their parents used. With hip colors on the hardware and various designs on the paper, they have the opportunity to express themselves instantly through a printed photo. By providing a fulfilment of instant gratification, paired with a premium price point, the once again new items lend a feeling of superiority to the end user.
On a larger scale, paper companies in general are looking to change the conversation. Two of the big draws away from printing (approximately 7 years ago) were environmental concerns and ease of use. Rather than denying environmental impacts of its industry, the paper companies began working to demonstrate their sustainability. Additionally, they started looking to show the benefits of when to use paper. Paper and digital don’t have to be mutually exclusive; in fact, they complement each other nicely depending on the user’s needs. Zink and Instax are examples of bridging the needs of people together.
What comes around goes around
With the proliferation of the smartphone, everyone wanted everything digital. Magazines – digital; menus – digital; directions – digital; planning and to-do lists – digital; shopping – digital. Once again, at some point what is old becomes new again. When people abandoned their Filofaxes and planners they shifted all of their attention to their digital solutions. However, over the past couple of years, a shift has started moving some of these tasks back to the paper industry. Many people have digital overload and find it difficult to keep track of everything in this format. Bullet journaling has become a social media sensation and inspired many people who have digital fatigue to shift some of their habits back to using paper. This is not necessarily tied directly with print, but the use of paper and notebooks is seeing resurgence. You can find articles on which brand is better – Moleskin vs. Leuchtturm; there are small paper shops producing stationary popping up on Instagram; Etsy is full of paper and journal companies that appeal primarily to the female demographic looking to add some creativity to the mundane task of planning. Once again, these companies are using the power of digital to resurrect paper usage and bring awareness to its unique benefits.
The consumer print and paper industries are facing decline. Rather than succumbing to that, both are actively seeking ways to encourage the use of their products. While bullet journaling won’t replace the high levels of paper that were used a decade ago in print, it will help curtail the decline and offer options for adaptation within the industry. If industries can sustain themselves for long enough, eventually what was old will become new again with a twist and most likely tied to some sort of digital element as well. Companies need to be innovative, open to change, and there at the right time to identify when to make that move. For now, products like the Sprocket and the Instax will help keep consumer photo printing alive and despite heavy marketing efforts, even this younger generation will refer to this group of products as Polaroid.