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Is it foolish to continue an obsolete product?

What would you have to do to make your company, and its product, so essential to your customer that they would refuse to let your business die? Imagine that kind of passion for what you do. Imagine a customer base so emotionally invested in the unique characteristics and qualities of your particular

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
3 min read
obsolete product

What would you have to do to make your company, and its product, so essential to your customer that they would refuse to let your business die? Imagine that kind of passion for what you do. Imagine a customer base so emotionally invested in the unique characteristics and qualities of your particular brand that they will take on the huge technical challenge of keeping your product alive, long after common sense—and your board—declares it should die.

This is exactly what the Impossible Project is currently doing with Polaroid Company’s instant film division. In 2008, two men—one of them a long time Polaroid employee, the other a committed fan of analog photography—heard the news that Polaroid was ceasing production of their classic instant film packs. The two men decided to be bold and do something seemingly foolish. They bought the relevant machinery from Polaroid, leased the plant, and rounded up a core group of employees who’d worked in the instant film division. They then set about essentially re-creating the instant film product from scratch. On a rational level, Polaroid film is an obsolete product that has run its course. But on an emotional level it’s a “warm” product, which means that it is something that a substantial number of fans have a deeply emotional, rather than logical, connection to. Need proof? Just look at your home page on Facebook; if it’s anything like mine, you can easily scroll through pages of smartphone Hipstamatic photographs. These digital versions of an analog experience take an unexceptional photograph and saturate it with the flaws, bleached-out or oversaturated colors, and slight distortions that came with the original Polaroid experience.

You could argue that Polaroid was reacting pragmatically and logically to the fundamental change from film to digital photography. Most professional photographers no longer wanted an instant film test of a setup that they were going to shoot digitally. Families and individuals were making the same transition in their home photography. Continuing to produce an obsolete product is foolishness. However, what the Impossible Project was able to do is isolate the elements of the instant film business that still had value, emphasize them, and promote them to exactly the people who would recognize, appreciate, and pay for those values.

Impossible Project film comes at a premium price of up to three dollars per exposure. They are open about the fact that the films and the dyes used in them are still experimental in nature, and offer unpredictable results. Their film won’t deliver lifelike colors, and the end results vary depending on the temperature at which they are shot. Using their film is a test of a photographer’s skill and creativity. In other words, they’ve stripped out the predictability and ease of use that was Polaroid’s original selling point to the mainstream masses. In their place they’ve ratcheted up the elements that matter to people who are truly passionate about Polaroid: its malleability, its subtle tones and colors, and the special effects that can be created if you manipulate the dyes before they have finished processing. It takes a good eye, quick reactions, and skill to get a great result from the new film, which adds up to one major selling point for the Impossible Project. If you grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s, and were at all “artsy,” you probably cut a fresh Polaroid in half and used the wet emulsion to create a reverse image in your journal. Now your kids can have the same experience, albeit for three times the price.

Polaroid’s decision to shutter their instant-film plant may have been the right one for them. The Impossible Project garners huge amounts of press, but their sales are still modest, and certainly insufficient to have kept the original Polaroid business model going. However, it’s surprising that Polaroid was unable to understand, or leverage, their customers’ love for their product into something.

An emotional bond with your customer is essential to creating a “must-have” product. It’s tempting to think that this link only happens organically, but you can forge this connection in a strategic manner. The Sparking Points below will get you thinking about the value of forging this bond, ways of doing it, and how to fully leverage the bond once it’s in place.

Sparking Points

  • What are the features that have elicited the strongest emotional response from your customers?
  • How do you ensure these are carried forward both in your current and future products?
  • How do you avoid killing the passion?
Book ExcerptsfilmImpossible Projectobsolete productphotographyPolaroidproductproduct features

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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