What Legacy Media Can Learn from Eastman Kodak

What do you do when your industry is changing? What do you do when your innovations are fueling the changes? Those problems have plagued Eastman Kodak Co. for three decades and the company’s experience provides some lessons for those running legacy media businesses.

Eastman Kodak’s success began when it introduced the first effective camera for non-professionals in the late 19th century and in continual improvements to cameras and black and white and color films throughout the twentieth century. Its products became iconic global brands.

The company’s maintained its position through enviable research and development activities, which in 1975 created the first digital camera. Since that time it has amassed more than 1,100 patents involving electronic sensing, digital imaging, electronic photo processing, and digital printing. These developments, however, continually created innovations damaging to its core film-based business.

Digital photography created a strategic dilemma for the company. It could move into digital photography and destroy the highly profitable film-based business or it could exploit the film-based business while it slowly declined and then--when it was no longer profitable--try to leap out of the business into digital world. It was an ugly choice and the company chose the latter.

Today, the company has just 15% of the employees it once had and its stock prices are about 15% of what they were before it finally stripped out its production capacity and distribution systems. An enduring benefit of its research and development activities is that the company now owns patents on much of the underlying technology used in all digital cameras including those in mobile phones. It is building a new digital revenue stream on licenses and infringement payments for use of those technologies. Those alone now account for 10% of its turnover.

Eastman Kodak’s situation is not unlike that of legacy media firms, especially those in print, whose uses of digital technologies two decades before the arrival Internet and whose experiments with teletext and other telecommunication based information distribution systems foreshadowed the arrival of the Internet.

Today, newspapers and magazines—and increasingly broadcasters—are faced with dilemma of whether to keep exploiting their base legacy product or to dump the old business and jump fully into digital. It is as ugly a choice as that faced by Eastman Kodak in the 1980s and 1990s. So, what lessons can be learned from its experience?

1)      Don’t try to fight change

You may not like its direction and may understand how it will affect your current business, but you will not be able to stop its momentum and trajectory if it is beneficial to many customers. In such conditions you can only protect your existing product by making it as productive and competitive as possible, by adjusting its strategies to better serve those who are most loyal and resist change, and by carefully monitoring the pace of change and the investments you make in the existing product. Simultaneously, existing companies that want to benefit from the change need to be creating new products for the new markets and allow them to develop and mature with the pace of change even though they may be compounding the challenges in the pre-existing product.

2)      Don’t wait too long to change

Waiting to move into new markets with new products gives upstart companies and other competitors opportunities to become players with better products and larger market shares once you decide to enter. Although there are sometimes reasons not to be first movers, you should not wait too long because it is very difficult and expensive to enter and become a major player once a new market moves into its maturation phase.

3)      Be willing to sacrifice some short-term profit for long-term gain and sustainability

Careful strategic consideration must be given profits during transitional periods and managers needs to make the strategy clear to the company and its investors. It may be desirable to boost research and development costs even though there is no guarantee they may produce results; it may be necessary to harm the profits of the existing product by building up its replacement and cannibalizing some of its market; it may be appropriate to make investments in the new product that may not pay off in the short-term. Whatever the strategy, it should be the result of clear and deliberate choices and managers need to ensure that investors and entire company understand the reasons for it.

4)      Own the rights to technologies and services your competitors will employ

Use your R&D efforts and make strategic acquisitions to acquire the technologies and services that competitors will need to employ in the new market so they must turn to you and share the benefits of their growth. Unfortunately, few legacy media companies invested in research and development to early exploit opportunities in digital media by creating the underlying hardware and software for content control and distribution online and in phones, tablets, and computers. Thus, they own few intellectual property rights other than trademarks to their legacy media names and most are not benefiting as Eastman Kodak from patents being used by those eroding the business base. However, the new products still need content products and content management services that legacy media have long produced and companies need to be open to cooperating with the new competitors rather than giving them incentives to go elsewhere or to develop their own content capabilities.

These are turbulent times for legacy media and they require making choices and positioning firms for the future. It is no time for timidity or keeping on with business as usual.

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