How Kodak’s marketing changed the way we act in front of cameras

Oct 9, 2017

In the 20 years since our agency was founded, we’ve encountered countless companies who think they only need marketing to promote the features and benefits of their products and services.

“We just need to let people know,” we’ve heard time and time again.

It’s not that this is unimaginative. It’s unrealistic. Frankly, it’s ahistorical.

The truth is, even revolutionary inventions needed creative promotional approaches to truly break through with the public.

Look at Kodak. The company created the first mass-market camera in 1888, and it soon built a photography monopoly. You’d think they hardly even needed to market themselves.

But they had a weird problem. People didn’t know what they were supposed to do in photos.

At that point, the only frame of reference society had to pictures was paintings. No one smiled in portraits because they had to sit for extended periods of time. You couldn’t hold a smile that long.

That’s why people look gloomy in old photographs. They didn’t think to smile, and felt awkward in front of a camera.

“This nervousness had to be overcome if photography was to become popular,” writes historian Christina Kotchemidova. “Kodak set out to mastermind the process.”

A Kodak ad from 1908. The Brownie cameras advertised here brought photography to everyone, starting at what would be $25 in today’s money.

Kodak began encouraging customers to take “snapshots” whenever they were having a good time. Ads of smiling people suggested using cameras to capture fun moments, and Kodak’s own photography publications reinforced the message.

It worked so beautifully, it’s almost impossible to imagine life any other way.

Don’t believe it? Well, there’s a famous study that digitized 37,921 yearbook photos since 1900, which clearly shows how the average person’s expression transitioned from brooding to beaming.

Researchers at Berkeley and Brown universities created these composite images that combine thousands of yearbook photos from different decades to show the evolution of smiling in photographs.

Long story short: your products and services probably won’t sell themselves, no matter how great they seem. Kodak shows that even pioneering products still need snappy, strategic marketing.


This article was written by Lee Procida. It first appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short.

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