From the launching of the first Manfrotto tripod in 1974 to the expansion of a host of high-quality accessory brands today, Manfrotto Distribution has made its mark in the imaging industry. I sat down with Adam Mirabella, Manfrotto’s new president/regional director of the Americas, and Paul Zakrzewski, Marketing director, to get an update on Manfrotto Distribution’s direction for the coming year.
JG: Adam, what brings you to the industry?
AM: I’m new to the industry, but I have a background in technology and entertainment, having spent time at Time Warner, Sony and Nokia. When I spent time understanding what Manfrotto does, it really supports the art of photography. I came to appreciate the power and heritage of the brand. In terms of carrying this forward, it’s an exciting challenge for me, and for the company.
Paul, you’re a true industry veteran, coming up the ranks from the old Minolta days. Tell us a little about the history of Manfrotto.
PZ: Going back to the days of Lino Manfrotto inventing light stands in Italy in the 1970s, Manfrotto has always had the mindset of quality. Growing from there, we entered into the U.S. in the early days of photokina with Lester Bogen, which began a whole generation within the U.S. market. Along the way, we started marketing Gitzo tripods, Kata bags and most recently the Lastolite brand of lighting. In 2010, Bogen Imaging changed its name to Manfrotto Distribution, and today we continue to grow and expand into different categories. Photo supports, lighting supports and bags are still our mainstay. Now video is very important. Quality products and innovation set us apart from our competitors and drive the marketplace in a new direction.
What kinds of new directions?
AM: We’ve found that the Manfrotto brand really resonates within the photo community for quality and longevity, the right design and the right support. It’s our opportunity to take what that brand stands for and make sure that same standard applies across all our product lines.
PZ: We continue to look at complementary categories. With Lastolite, we added LEDs and our own branded lighting. We started out in the CE market with our bag line, but last October we decided to go after the bag market in a big way. We have Pro, Pro Light, which used to be the Kata brand, and now we’re expanding into outdoor action bags, called our Off-Road series, taking backpackers and photo enthusiasts and bringing them together.
Is the plan to have all of your products eventually fall under the Manfrotto brand?
PZ: We still have the Lastolite line with its own reputation. Gitzo also stands on its own as being the “Ferrari” of tripods. We distribute our own brands. Since we are a third-party distributor in the U.S. (versus other countries), we can represent brands like Elinchrom, Metz, Gossen, Rotatrim cutters and National Geographic bags for this territory only. So, those brands fit in from a quality standpoint and they make sense. Virtually everything else is now branded Manfrotto.
AM: There’s a much broader range of products that we can bring to the market leveraging Manfrotto, and Manfrotto Distribution is a company that is distributing these very high-quality products.
How do you choose the brands in your stable?
PZ: We look at the brands from a complementary standpoint. They complement but don’t compete. We also look at them from a true quality standpoint: are these brands leaders in their particular lines of business, or are they in an emerging area that we feel confident that they will become leaders? And can we help them get there? We always look at where the marketplace is going.
A great example is video. You used to buy two different cameras; now photographers are becoming videographers. And it’s our job, as a company that creates great photo and video products, to make sure we satisfy their video needs as well. We can now offer solutions because we understand what they need.
For example, we saw the video/photography crossover. We knew SLRs were going to become an important part of the video market. So we created a new line in our video heads, the 500 series, which is lightweight, works great with digital SLRs, but you’re not going to put larger cameras on it. However, for that photographer using a DSLR, it’s perfect and it’s priced right.
Do you sell direct?
AM: There are a portion of consumers who feel more comfortable buying directly from the brand, so we want to make the path to the consumer as simple as possible. If that’s a path they want to take, we want to make it easy for them. We understand that online is an important channel for our retail partners, so we are always looking to partner online with our retail customers. Understanding online allows us to come to the conversation with a point of view on how to get to the end consumer.
PZ: When you shop online with us, in most cases we are not fulfilling the order; our retailers are. If the retailer can fulfill the order, we empower them to do it. If they can’t, then we will fulfill it directly. So we turn our sales directly over to them. We feel it’s a great benefit to our partners. We have it broken down geographically; retailers see what orders are out there in their region, and if they can fulfill it in a certain amount of time, then they can grab it. So, we’re not really competing with our retailers. We’re more of a service for the retailers online.
What’s your strategy in working with photo specialty dealers?
AM: Strategically, the way the organization is set up is to be able to cater to the individual needs of photo specialty. The way the marketing and sales teams are set up is not cookie-cutter. You’re talking about people who are passionate about this art and want to share that with retailers and consumers. Each one of our photo specialty partners does that in a different way. So the way we work with Adorama might be different from how we work with Samy’s, B&H and others. That’s the way we think it makes sense. If you try to paint it with a broad brush, it just doesn’t work.
PZ: From a marketing perspective, we have varying tools to make it work on an individual basis. We come to them with a program. When we hear about store expansions, we’re more than willing to work with retailers on displays and other pieces that help them complete the puzzle of their store. With our Befree program, if you can’t put it on the end aisle, we can put it on your wall. Product-wise, we have a segregation of products where we have entry-level products that might only be appropriate for CE chains. Then we have mid-level products that might work for both (specialty and CE/mass), and then our true pro products, which are reserved to the appropriate retailer.
How do you innovate with new products?
AM: We listen to the consumer. The best way to do that is to get direct feedback through the retailers. We don’t want to copy others; we want to lead the innovation. For example, before we reintroduced the X190, we listened to consumers and retailers, and we heard what they liked and didn’t like. We added things like leg warmers and Ducati handgrips that were completely waterproof. Retailers told us that certain levers on our tripods might be difficult to open, especially for women. So we created new leg levers that are easier to deploy.
PZ: One of my favorite questions I like to ask photographers is “You’re on a photo shoot and you say, ‘if I only had blank…’ What’s that blank?” We may already have a solution, but it can also be the next amazing product that comes out. We’re always funneling back ideas to find the next best thing.
When you talk about bags, you have to talk about protection. We have something in our bag line called the Camera Protection System (CPS). With most camera bags, you have to put gear into it to give structure to the bag. Our bags already have structure built in, so we’re protecting the gear instead of using the gear to protect itself. And through drop tests, we found out that the center of the bag is where the most damage occurs. So, to counteract that, we built a center CPS to protect the most expensive gear.
AM: We also work with our third-party manufacturers. It’s important for us to understand what they’re thinking as well. I want to make sure we have products that complement what they’re doing (not compete with them). It’s an important two-way street.
You certainly have a multitiered approach to your product line.
PZ: We really reach different end users and different retailers. We drive this from the product development out, and we gear it to the key consumers. For instance, entry-level products like the Klyp (pronounced “Clip”) for the iPhone, which allows you to add lenses and LEDs, because we want consumers to take more pictures and move up the line (in their photography journey). We have mid-tier products, where we are trying to capture the person making the move to their first DSLR or mirrorless camera. We capture consumers all the way up to the professional level. And we use our brand umbrella as a place where photographers aspire to be.
With all of this going on, what keeps you up at night?
AM: Making sure this machine we have, Manfrotto Distribution, is set up and working in a way that makes the most sense for our retail base. That’s something that is a continual evolution. We have these customers who are buying our products and representing them to consumers. So we have to continue to support them in their efforts to make sure everything is in place to make it easy and comfortable to sell our brands. manfrotto.us