Riding the Economic Yo-Yo

Riding the Economic Yo-Yo

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do not claim to be any kind of economic wizard or even to begin to grasp the subtleties of what’s happening in the world of finance, but I think I know a creeping sense of panic when I see one, having seen a few of them before. As I write this, the Dow has jumped up 225 points to balance out the loss of 210 points the day before. Oil dropped 2% and the financial pages are filled with prediction of it slipping below $100 a barrel by year’s end. And who knows where things will stand by the time this hits the page? Ever get the feeling you’re being jerked around?

There’s an odd kind of yo-yo feeling in the industry we all know and love as well. Every company I know is cutting back, yet at the same time is gearing up for a slew of introductions at photokina. Everyone’s rushing around checking inventories for the holiday “rush” yet they are doing so with some sense of dread that might cause them to under-stock for fear they’ll be over-stocked. And the manufacturers are still pumping product out with a six-month life cycle, while slashing budgets for marketing and advertising so fewer people will know the new stuff even exists. And diversified companies are plugging holes in the dike with profitable items to stave off the flood of losses caused by divisions that didn’t make the grade.

There’s no question in my mind that people will still keep making pictures. Babies are being born; trips, though perhaps shorter ones, are still being taken; kids are still spending Saturday mornings kicking a ball around; folks are still finding some solace and outlet for their creative selves by making photographs. The number of Web sites for sharing, comparing and making a fool of oneself have burgeoned, providing an outlet for images never seen before. Digital has allowed more people to become better photographers and to show off their work in more ways than we ever imagined.

Yet, even with all this activity and interest, there is no way for the industry to be immune to what’s happening around it. People have taken a step back and looked at just where they might need to spend their dollar, and while taking pictures of important events and wonderful moments is still up there on the list, I think, it is perhaps not with the unbridled enthusiasm a healthier economy would bring.

Promoting Picture Taking

I am not going to go all Pollyanna and start swooning about how wonderful it would be if we woke up one morning and it would all be better. That isn’t going to happen, not as long as we maintain all the same assumptions about how things work, about what our collective goals are and letting the same old crowd run the show. It strikes me that as an industry it is time to rethink some of the momentum we have created and get back to some of the basics about promoting picture taking. Perhaps it’s time to stop worrying so much about incremental increases in megapixels and the latest wrinkle in face detection technology and start concentrating on selling, again, the wonders and benefits of photography.

For many years now innovation has been the driving competitive factor. Each product cycle manufacturers try to outdo each other in the myriad ways the consumer can improve their photography, or be dazzled by the latest and greatest tools. And this has been a great benefit for all consumers, yielding better quality at increasingly lower prices. At the same time, however, the industry has been subsumed into the consumer electronics business, which demands product turnovers at a pace that the photo industry, and perhaps even the photo consumer, had not seen before. I can’t tell you how many e-mails I get at the magazine bemoaning the fact that the day after the writer bought the X27 the X29 came out, making him feel a bit obsolete and a lot foolish.

Don’t get me wrong. For the most part this change has been good, and as I said has given us amazing leaps forward in quality and value. I know, as I have worked with these cameras over the years, and what we have today makes the earlier digital image technology pale in comparison. What I am suggesting is that perhaps the emphasis now has to move a bit off competitive innovation (which to me is 5 parts innovation and 5 parts convincing the consumer that your competitors’ products are behind the times) and back into competitive marketing and promotion of photography per se. Perhaps we have to take a breath and summarize just what the consumer can do with their images, and how photography is still an important part of their lives. We have to sell the message of value and benefits, and reassert that photography remains an essentially social activity, and not just a fun scientific experiment that somehow involves pictures.

Examining Photography’s Value

Does this mean that we should slow down the product cycle and frustrate the plans already on the drawing board? My suggestion is that we consider how fast and furious we want to be, and consequently how we anticipate how much the consumer of today wants to go along for the ride, and then make some real hard decisions about promoting the activity of photography rather than just the technical specs. Yes, there will be a percentage of photographers who eagerly follow every tick and tock of the technology clock, but the majority of folks who pay the industry’s rent probably could care less. They have other fish to fry. But our job now might be reasserting the value of photography as a recorder of memories, as an important social activity bound into all our lives. And when things improve and all boats rise we can get back to our previous fast and furious pace. yy

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