CMO Interview: How Kodak’s global CMO is bringing the brand back from the brink

Kodak’s global chief marketing officer on rejuvenating the brand through creativity, innovation and the next digital wave

Steve Overman
Steve Overman

Speculation is rising around the highly anticipated launch of Kodak’s forthcoming smartphone offering on 20 October, the latest in a series of products aimed at re-introducing the brand to a new generation of consumer creators.

CMO caught up with the brand’s global chief marketing officer, Steven Overman, to find out how he is planning to resurrect the brand in the hearts and minds of connected consumers, as well as the very relevant role Kodak can play in a world where digital and physical experiences are not only converging, but shape shifting around us.

Finding Kodak’s next hero product

When Steven Overman first joined Kodak two years ago as CMO, he went on a fact finding mission and consulted several industry mentors to ask them what they would do in his shoes.

“Kodak as a brand is almost part of human heritage, I’m the steward of its next chapter, so I asked them: What would you do in my shoes?” he tells CMO. “A legend in the advertising industry, who shall remain nameless, said he would identify a product that could be an icon of what Kodak stands for, that only Kodak can deliver, then develop, offer and learn from it.”

Overman, who is also president of Kodak’s consumer and film division, the group’s second-largest revenue contributor, spent the next eight months looking for what that product would be. It was when the motion picture team raised a new Super 8 camera that he says “something clicked”.

“It was never their intention for Super 8 to be the iconic product, it was just something they thought we should do,” Overman says. “But I looked at the proposal, which was to make a limited edition number of these cameras, and realised it was something only Kodak could do.”

Announced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, the hybrid camera combines a digital viewfinder with analogue film capture, allowing users to see what they’re capturing on film.

“Seeing an analogue renaissance evolving around me – vinyl being a great example – I felt this would resonate with young people, just enough to garner the interest of influential design publications and some hipsters, which would be good enough to build some relevance with the influencer community, and which we’d then leverage into broader, mainstream products,” Overman says.

What the team didn’t expect was for Super 8 to chalk up 5000 pre-orders and become a volume product program. “Super 8 turned out to be a far bigger hit not only with consumers who became aware of it, but also in the motion picture industry and among film schools,” he says. “We didn’t think interest would scale the way it has.”

Launching into smartphones

It’s the first of many products Kodak is bringing to market to bring the brand back to a new generation of consumers. The next, due for release on 20 October, is a smartphone, the brand’s the second foray into this space following the launch of its IM5 in January 2015 via an licensed partnership with Bullitt Group.

“It’s fair to say the positioning wasn’t right,” Overman says of the initial product launched. “Kodak is a creative brand for creative people, and our aspiration is to become the leading brand in the maker movement. That’s a big ambition, but brands need big ambition and that is how we’re positioning Kodak going forward. Kodak has enabled generations of people to be creative. We will continue to in the future.”

With that as a guiding light, plus the learnings from Super 8, Overman says it’s worked with the same smartphone partner to develop an entirely new device. But he stresses Kodak has no interest in being a phone company.

“We are a creativity company. The devices we carry in our pockets are one of the primary ways we create,” he says. “This [smartphone] is a ‘tent pole’ category for us to build a creative maker ecosystem of products, including the device itself, as well as ancillary products that can accompany either that device, or other products that enable people to be creative.”

Bringing a brand back from the brink

Kodak is a 128-year-old brand with an incredible history and nostalgia. Its ‘K’ logo and distinctive yellow brand colour (Pantone 123) are well known to generations of amateur and professional photographers and film makers worldwide. Its innovations, which stretch from handheld and aerial cameras to breakthrough industrial photo material manufacturing, saw engineers awarded nearly 20,000 patents between 1990 and 1999.

It’s also arguably the biggest brand demise in the history of branding. Failure to productise the digital photography revolution it in fact created in 1975 left the company struggling to find a place in an Internet-powered world. Inadequate revenue from remaining consumer and commercial printing businesses, spiralling employee costs and misguided efforts to wipe out its heritage and reposition the business, saw the iconic organisation file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January 2012.

It took 20 months, but Kodak relisted in 2013, and today has built annual revenues back to between US$1.5 billion and $1.7 billion. It’s also returned to profitability.

What emerged with it, however, was a brand neglected for 10 years, that was both bruised and battered because of its failure to innovate alongside the consumers and creatives it hoped to serve. So what does it actually take to bring a brand back from the brink?

Overman likens Kodak to “an urban regeneration project”. “Neighbourhoods that have been left for dead are regenerated and extraordinary value is created again, often initially through artists, and creative partnerships are a key part of our strategy,” he says.

“Kodak is a brand that has long supplied to some of the greatest motion and photographic artists the world has known, and it’s a brand ripe for rejuvenation and regeneration with their partnership and support.”

From a commercial perspective at least, Kodak has come back from the brink. It’s profitable and operates seven sustainable seven business divisions: Print systems, enterprise inkjet systems, micro 3D printing and packaging, software and solutions, consumer and film, intellectual property solutions and Eastman Business Park manufacturing centre.

“A brand as famous as Kodak that filed chapter 11 and went over the brink in a way makes my job easier,” Overman continues. “On one hand, I have this incredible fame and legacy, and yet a clean slate to start fresh.”

Research conducted across India, China, the US and UK showed love of the Kodak brand was so high, it far outranked any other brand in the list of brands consumers would like to see come back, he says.

“We aren’t going to rest on that, we have a job to do, but there is a desire to see Kodak succeed and I think it’s to do with how Kodak has been a protector and preserver of our memories and moments,” Overman says.

Harking back to its entrepreneurial heritage

From its earliest beginnings, Kodak was a brand as much as a company, Overman says, created by one of the most iconic, innovative men of the late Victorian generation, George Eastman. And he’s finding enormous inspiration in Eastman’s story and brand legacy.

“Eastman is the father of contemporary brand - he invented the word Kodak because he liked the letter K, he was visually precise, graphically brilliant and in many ways, and a self-taught scientist,” Overman says. “It’s an incredible story. So in the case of Kodak, I had to go back to the beginning. So much had gone wrong in recent years, I wanted to back right up to Eastman’s original intentions.”

Overman sought out the young Eastman, visiting the archives of the founder’s museum in New York to dig out pictures of him as a young man. What emerged was a bearded, voguish entrepreneur, who would look at home today amid the hipsters of Surry Hills, Hackney or Dalston in London, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and Silicon Valley.

“One of the first things I did was reintroduce our company to ‘young George’, because it’s young George that created the value instilled in the Kodak brand,” Overman says. He added Kodak is in the process of pitching a film about Eastman’s life.

“He’s the archetype that reminds us that we’re not trying to introduce some hipster element to the brand, this is who founded us and we’ve been neglecting what he was all about. It’s time to reclaim it.”

Up next: How Overman changed the corporate culture, plus ways Kodak plays to bring back its innovation edge

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