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Forever Losing the Kodak Moment

Forever Losing the Kodak Moment

J. Kevin Ament
Sunday, April 26, 2009

On July 30, 1993, the Missouri river’s Monarch Levee buckled, flooding Chesterfield Valley, Missouri.  The rising waters quickly submerged a 10x30 public storage locker a few miles from the breach, drowning 15 years of my family’s accumulated artifacts. 15 years of photo albums. Within hours, our Kodak moments dissolved in a toxic bath of runoff and gasoline. Gone forever.

The experience changed us. My parents stopped taking photos. I went the other way, trying with each new roll of film to replace what we’d lost. I printed triples of everything, sealing the most cherished in zip-top bags and depositing them in hill-top banks.  As photography shifted to digital, I burned jpegs to CDs and uploaded cell phone shots to Facebook and Flickr, creating the largest possible photographic fingerprint.

Recently, I’ve begun exploring websites providing secure archival. At the online Kodak Gallery, I can upload, edit, print and most importantly, store unlimited digital photos. The Gallery dovetails perfectly with the company’s brand promise of preserving memories, but like all great brands, fulfilling this promise comes down to operations.  And a recent change in the site’s Terms of Service reveals a potential problem.

Apparently, Gallery members aren’t printing enough to pay for the storage, so Kodak now requires an annual purchase from all members who want to continue storing their photos on the site. Charging for the service is understandable, but the real devil is in the details. Kodak warns that the photos of non-paying members “may be deleted” if they fail to make the minimum purchase.

Worst thing imaginable for someone like me, and a stunning misstep for a generations-old brand built on creating and preserving memories.

After some angry member responses, the Gallery’s general manager posted a frank (and at times, scolding) letter of explanation that does more harm than good. In the letter, which begins “nobody likes paying for something that they thought was free,” he reiterates the new policy and exclaims that the customers who order prints have long been “subsidizing” those who haven’t. He asks these freeloading members to share the costs, just as they share the benefits.

This is a problem.

Isn’t it possible that different members want different things out of the Gallery? That members who do not order photos through the site are not parasites, but rather Kodak has never assigned a price to the service they most value?

The gm's response clearly states that Kodak believes in choice and was founded on trust. Yet the company offers no choices to members who want the storage but do not wish to order prints. Nor does Kodak retract the threat that members’ pictures could be deleted from the site -- an act that would erode generations of trust.

How might consumers have responded to another kind of letter -- one that positioned the change as a way for Kodak to better serve members primarily interested in archival, while continuing to meet the growing needs of members actively using the Gallery’s editing and printing services?  What if Kodak assigned a price to and developed additional services for archival, rather than requiring members to order prints they may not want in order to get the “free” storage value-add? What if the letter had offered real choices for members who do not wish to order prints OR pay for archival, like transferring all photos to a protected disk and returning them via priority mail. Wouldn’t that better demonstrate a respect for photography and a reason for continued trust?

Companies must know what they stand for, as Kodak certainly does. But so too must a company’s voice and operations reinforce the brand and keep its promise to the consumer. So many of us have already lost our futures to trusted brands in banking. This is no time for the brands we entrust with our past to leave any room for doubt.

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