Story of a brand: Polaroid

Once a leading technology company, Polaroid has become a brand for artists and creatives. But its journey has been anything but instant.
Polaroid hero 16x9

The name Polaroid has always been synonymous with ‘instant photography’ – like Google is to ‘search’. And despite what many might think – that Polaroid should have been one of the many casualties of the digital consumer revolution – the business is still with us. But, having survived two bankruptcies, the brand is now playing a difficult balancing game: how does it stay true to its 80-year legacy while also pulling the company into modernity?

Laser focus

From its inception in 1937 until the eighties, Polaroid was seen to be a beacon of technological innovation. Founder Edwin Land, who ran the company until 1981, clocked in 535 patents during his career. In 1991, when he died, the company recorded peak annual revenue of $3 billion. 

Unsurprisingly, it was the digital camera that began to challenge Polaroid’s stronghold in the camera industry. Kodak led the charge, bringing its digital camera to the market in 1975. Ironically, at the time, Polaroid already had a digital camera prototype developed, but thought the consumer wouldn’t be ready for it. And it did take a while for the market to acclimatise – it wasn’t until the nineties that digital camera ownership took off. After refusing to launch its own digital product, and swimming in debt for 13 years, the Polaroid Corporation filed for bankruptcy in 2001.

The big reframe 

Following the bankruptcy, the Polaroid Corporation’s assets were transferred to a holding company. In an attempt to save the credibility that it had accumulated over the years, the Polaroid logo was licensed for use, but ended up on completely incongruent products, like plasma TVs and DVD players. Soon after, popular Polaroid models and films were discontinued and, in 2008, following a criminal investigation, the holding company also filed for bankruptcy, leaving the assets up for grabs again. 

At the time, Dr Florian Kaps, a Vienna-based biologist keen to revive analogue experiences, was on a quest to save the last Polaroid film factory. He took charge of it in the Netherlands in 2008. That was where the aptly named The Impossible Project began, with its explicit aim being to keep Polaroid-compatible film in production. In 2017, The Impossible Project scooped up the floating brand assets and intellectual property from the former holding company for Polaroid and renamed itself Polaroid Originals. In 2020, the company dropped ‘Originals’ from its name, and a documentary about Dr Kaps’ journey to save Polaroid was released. 

Today, Polaroid’s CEO is Oskar Smolokowski, who led the acquisition of the brand assets in 2017. He acknowledges that the brand is only still around because consumers are after authentic experiences in a world of information overload. ‘What is Polaroid,’ says Oskar, ‘when you strip the product away from our values?’

Through the ages

In its heyday, Polaroid was pumping out new products – the first, pre-bankruptcy Polaroid Corporation released more than150 varieties of instant camera. Albeit quietly, the brand is still doing the same today. Since 2008, it has launched various new products and services every single year. Here are five products that changed the game for the brand over the years.

1965 – Model 20 Swinger 

The Swinger was priced at $20. Accounting for inflation, that is about $165 in today’s money – still a world away from the roughly $900 that the first Polaroid would have cost. The Swinger  brought the world of instant photography to the masses. 

Pu2001 – P-500 Mobile Digital Printer

A first-of-its-kind printer that printed photos directly onto film, this was compatible not just with Polaroid cameras but also with the majority of digital cameras on the market. 

2015 – Polaroid Cube 

Initially intended for an audience of action-video enthusiasts, the Cube cost only $99. GoPro, however, had launched and built a brand following on from its own range of hands-free video cameras, which had seen big sales the year before.

2017 – OneStep 2 

Revealed on the brand’s 80th anniversary, the OneStep 2 was an homage to the OneStep instant camera from 1977, with additional new features including a self-timer and USB charging. In 2018, Polaroid launched OneStep+, which could be paired with smartphones using Bluetooth technology.  

2019 – The Lab 

The Polaroid Lab prints images directly from smartphones via the Polaroid Originals app. Users can toggle with image settings before printing on i-Type film.

From product to experience

Over time, Polaroid became less about functionality and more about aesthetic. After all, nobody strictly needs instant photography any more. In a strategic 2001 PR campaign, the camera was marketed as a fashion accessory, while the company sponsored popular events and built relationships with creatives. 

Today, Polaroid cameras are a staple at festivals and modelling agencies use them for headshots. Other ventures include a sneaker launch with Puma, a line of cameras in a Barbie theme and even, in 2010, bringing Lady Gaga in for four years as creative director. 

For Oskar, it’s about positioning Polaroid as the antidote to the smartphone. ‘Customers are starting to react to digital overload, and missing life beyond a glass screen. It’s about how we can encourage people to live their values outside of the product.’ Other camera producers also use a similar approach: Kodak’s Instagram bio says that it has been ‘enabling creativity since 1880’, while Canon’s brand hashtag is #liveforthestory. 

Polaroid has also benefited from a rise in nostalgia marketing. Millennials and Gen Xers are craving analogue products, and Gen Z are increasingly looking to get away from screens – according to a report from festival PR agency Full Fat, 69% of Gen Zs surveyed prefer to take part in experiences that don’t collect their data. It’s a trend that has stretched way beyond instant photography to vinyl records, vintage gaming, flip phones, LEGO for adults and even limited relaunches of old food products. And nostalgia branding is likely to stick around as a counterculture to technical advancements – which is good news for brands like Polaroid.

Commercial shifts

Nothing demonstrates Polaroid’s brand-identity shift quite like its iconic marketing and advertising communications over the years. From emphasising the functionality of the cameras, recent commercials have been experiential, abstract and artistic – they’ve even won awards for creative direction. 

1. The launch of the Swinger camera in 1965 was accompanied with a handy – and unforgettable – jingle, which ran through a simple set of instructions on how to use the camera, emphasising how universally accessible and easy it was. 

2. Actors James Garner and Mariette Hartley appeared in a series of television commercials for Polaroid between the late seventies and early eighties. The pair focused on the usability of a variety of models, injecting a bit of gentle humour into the brand. 

3. A 1996 commercial by French director Michel Gondry signified Polaroid’s move into artistic branding. In the style of a short film, the ad told the story of a Hong Kong worker who resigns from his stressful job by giving his boss a Polaroid, going on to ‘Live for the moment’. 

4. Continuing apace in strengthening its relationship with pop culture – and the ‘Live for the moment’ slogan – Polaroid released a print and video campaign fronted by the Spice Girls in 1997. 

5. After a break – and two bankruptcies – Polaroid’s Tableau Vivant advert in 2015 was a 45-second video filmed in one single shot. It shows a family room being squeezed to the size of a Polaroid photo, and went on to win a Golden Gate Award. 

6. The 2015 advert ended with a new slogan – ‘Bringing people together’. Polaroid’s 2020 ad takes that theme further, showing two people in one room  who communicate through a Polaroid pic. 

Zooming out

Almost against all odds, the instant camera market has actually been growing over the past decade. Between 2013 and 2016, the annual growth rate of the industry was nearly 16%, according to WiseGuy Reports. Growth has slowed massively, but is still on an upward trajectory: analysis firm DataIntelo predicts an annual industry growth rate of 2.5% between 2020 and 2026. And given the high brand recognition that Polaroid has, you’d expect it to be at the helm of the industry. But it’s Fujifilm that has cornered that niche. 

Fujifilm’s instax model is often compared to Polaroid cameras. Back in 2017, Polaroid even threatened a trademark lawsuit and demanded royalty payments from Fujifilm, for allegedly copying the unmistakable white frame of Polaroid photography. And when it comes to price, the instax mini model is nearly half the price of its Polaroid OneStep+ equivalent. The two brands are also closely competing in their lifestyle marketing. A quick look at instax’s website shows that it’s building a similar creative brand community to Polaroid, complete with a short film about all the emotional moments that an instax can capture – an eerie echo of Polaroid’s ‘Live for the moment’ campaigns. 

Taylor Swift – evidently a fan of instant photography – even paid homage to Polaroid images through one of her albums, entitled 1989. Each of the singles on the album was released with its own Polaroid-themed cover, each with a handwritten caption. Four years later, in 2018, it was competitor Fujifilm that scored a brand partnership with the singer, with the company releasing a limited-edition camera in her name. After selling 6 million units of instax in the whole of 2016, Fujifilm went on to record a further 8.5 million sales in the nine months that followed its Taylor Swift partnership between 2018 and 2019, proving the power of marketing instant cameras as a lifestyle choice over a purely photographic choice.


A word with Oskar Smolokowski, CEO of Polaroid.

How does the modern-day Polaroid brand continue to tap into its history and heritage?

A. ‘We still make a core product that has been around for decades. The instant photograph is still at the heart of what we do, but it’s also about our connection with pop and art culture over the past 50 years.’

How has licensing played into that?

A. ‘We set up partnerships with huge cultural partners, whether that is Stranger Things, or Puma, or The Mandalorian. It’s not the be-all and end-all of how we expand, but we choose our partners carefully. How do they contribute to a more human, meaningful experience? How do they add a bit of magic in? It’s more an art than a science, right?’

Have you seen customer interactions change as the retro, nostalgic trend has come back?

A. ‘It’s not so much a trend in retro as a trend in meaningful connection. People want real-life experiences. Analogue has always been in our DNA, and we love that there is just one copy of a photo for the owner to keep. Beyond that, it’s very difficult to measure exactly which trend has what effect.’ 

Assuming instant photography is short-lived, Polaroid's next strategic move is...?

A. ‘It’s really important to us that we think about the future, and we want to ensure longevity beyond the product itself anyway. It comes down to our values, which are about empowering creators and making moments.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 40, April/May 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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