Scott Hardy likes to say that Polaroid was the original social network. “Think about it,” says the president and CEO of the Minnetonka, Minn.-based corporation. “Sharing is the essence of the Polaroid brand — sharing memories, stories and events. And we’ve been doing that for 75 years.”
Hardy, who has been president since 2009 and added CEO to his title last fall, is charged with reinventing the Polaroid experience for the digital age. The company is off to a rapid start: Licensing deals are in place with more than 35 companies around the globe and the Polaroid brand now extends to smart cameras, mobile phones, tablet computers and mobile apps.
Earlier this year Polaroid partnered with a startup called Fotobar to open an experiential retail store called Polaroid Fotobar, where consumers can give images locked in various digital formats a home in the real world.
“Polaroid has been a part of people’s everyday lives for decades, but the approach we’re taking today is not about a walk down memory lane,” says Hardy. “It’s about stimulating creativity, authenticity and self-expression by means of a host of consumer electronics, and bringing instant cameras into the digital world.
“We’ve got this amazing, iconic brand imbued with attributes like sharing and spontaneity that make up our DNA,” he explains. “We’ve also got easily identifiable assets like the color spectrum that is part of the logo and the classic white border that signifies a Polaroid image. We realized that these attributes need to be the filter by which we infuse that DNA into every product. The more we integrate those elements into the product, the more it rings true with the consumer and drives purchase intent and success.”
That realization is what Polaroid is hanging its hat on. The company endured its share of troubles — punctuated by its association with Twin Cities business mogul Tom Petters, whose Ponzi scheme landed him a 50-year sentence in federal prison. Hardy insists those dark days are behind Polaroid.
Shake it, shake it…
The most recent shake up at Polaroid began in earnest in 2009, shortly after Gordon Brothers Group and Hilco Trading acquired the company after its second bankruptcy filing in less than 10 years. Gordon Brothers’ executives, convinced that a licensing model delivered the lowest risk and highest potential return on investment, made the decision to transform Polaroid into an intellectual property holding company.
Polaroid’s ace in the hole is its brand recognition. Only a handful of companies around the world can claim to have 100 percent brand recognition: Polaroid is in that elite group, along with Rolex, Nike, and McDonald’s.
“Our job … is to monetize that asset and to go out and find strategic partners around the world who are experts in specific categories and territories, then give them an exclusive license, under our close oversight supervision, to take those products to market,” Hardy explains.
Polaroid continues to sell analog instant cameras thanks to a partnership with a Netherlands-based company called The Impossible Project. Vintage, refurbished Polaroid instant cameras remain a hot item, selling on The Impossible Project’s website for upwards of $300. Still, the brand assets extend beyond instant cameras and have been leveraged around the world with notable success.
Polaroid is the No.1 selling photography app in the Apple app store in China. In October of 2011, Polaroid was reported to be the second-highest-selling mobile phone in France, behind only the iPhone 4S. And ASDA Walmart selected Polaroid as its exclusive house brand across consumer electronics in the U.K. By June 2012, Polaroid was the No. 1 product across all general merchandise at ASDA Walmart, outselling the competition by 450 percent — even at a 10 percent price premium.
Closer to home, the name has been showing up on a number of consumer electronics products in a variety of retail channels. On Black Friday 2012, Macy’s sold out of a “huge order” of multi-colored, over-the-ear Polaroid headphones. “Macy’s loved them and reordered,” Hardy says. “The brand stands for color, fun, ease of use [and] affordability, and this item hit on all those attributes.”
A year earlier, Kohl’s sold nearly 40,000 Polaroid tablets in one day. And during the spring of 2011, the GL10 Instant Mobile Printer — the first product in Lady Gaga’s Polaroid Grey Label line — debuted at Bloomingdale’s flagship Manhattan store with a splashy interactive storefront window display designed by Polaroid and Haus of Gaga.
At Target, the Polaroid brand resonates with shoppers who are drawn to the creativity and Americana that it represents. At last count, Target sells more than 50 Polaroid products, including wireless security cameras, HDTVs, tablets and both instant and digital cameras.
“We’ve always been very much a mass brand and we embrace that, but at the same time we need to diversify our retail portfolio and we have done so,” Hardy says. “We’ve gone wider and deeper, and we’ve made significant inroads with retailers around the world.”
Continuing to expand internationally is one of a handful of goals Hardy outlines. “We have been very focused on domestic expansion of our licensing program. Now we’re also concentrating on Asia, Latin America and other parts of Europe. About half of Polaroid sales now come from outside the U.S. Next year, I think we’ll surpass the halfway mark.”
Also on the to-do list: placing Polaroid products in a broader mix of retail stores, paying close attention to what loyal fans of the brand have to say and working with partners to deliver more innovative products under the Polaroid brand.
Polaroid garnered quite a bit of attention at January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with the iM1836 — an interchangeable-lens consumer camera that doubles as an Android pocket computer. In addition to being the first Android camera with interchangeable lenses, its image sensor is housed in the lens, not the camera body where it can be contaminated by dust.
Hardy, who describes himself as a photography enthusiast, remembers February 2008 very well. That’s when Polaroid announced it would discontinue production of its instant film, shut down three factories and lay off 450 workers. He has found a way to stay true to the Polaroid tradition of delivering instant photos printed on special photo paper. The company has established partnerships with companies in Japan, the Netherlands and the United States. Zink (“zero ink”) is a technology that Polaroid once owned; it now belongs to Massachusetts-based Zink Imaging.
“Right now the brand licensing model we have in place is allowing the company to expand at a more rapid rate than Polaroid could have dreamed of as a manufacturing company,” Hardy says. “I look at Instagram and I see a company that’s leveraging a concept we began many years ago. Now we have outputs for Instagram that young people can use to turn their shots into something physical and tangible. We’re a 75-year-old company that is now not only living in a digital universe, but thriving.”