"I Hope That [Camera X] Will Save [Company Y]"


For the last year I've been seeing a lot of variations of the headline: "I think that the E-M5 will save Olympus" or "The next Alpha is going to save Sony" and so on and so on. 

Individual products won't save a camera company. They can start to turn people's opinions about a company, but they need to be part of a carefully calculated, concerted, coordinated, and correct product line plan. 

The best case in point of this lately has been Fujifilm. The original X100 got everyone talking at Photokina 2010, even though it was really just a trial balloon. The introduction of the X100 in 2011 didn't suddenly change Fujifilm's camera business from loss to profit. But the X100 was followed by a range of coordinated products with shared traits: the X10, X20, the X-Pro1, and eventually the X100s, the X-E2, X-M1, and X-A1. We'll see the X-E2, X70, and XQ1 soon. 

The shared traits here were traditional controls, traditional rangefinder looks, viewfinders (on most of the models), high build quality (metal bodies, etc.), top optics, and Fujfilm's special X-Trans sensor brew (on most of the models). Anyone who thought that Fujifilm got a lot right with the original X100—which was a lot of folk—has been seeing Fujifilm continue to get those same things right on subsequent models. Thus, the opinions started turning with the X100, but it was really the X-Pro1 and X10 that showed that Fujifilm was going to drive this new design discipline through their entire camera lineup. 

But note, all those interesting (and often quite good; see my reviews of the X100, X-Pro1, and X-E1) Fujifilm cameras still haven't gotten the company to stop losing money in cameras. If Fujifilm continues to abandon the low end compact cameras, what will remain is a pretty nicely focused group of cameras that sell at higher cost, but in far lower quantities. In a declining sales market, that doesn't really get a company out of the woods by itself. 

Sony, on the other hand, is all over the place. Some of their recent cameras have been real winners. The RX100 (and RX100II) and the RX1 come to mind, and they share a lot of common traits, ala what Fujifilm has done. But then we have the mess that is the NEX line: A3000, NEX3/5/6/7, VG20/30/900, FS100/FS700, with more variations coming. Even the 3/5/6/7 part of the line isn't exactly of one mind. Some have phase detect focus, some don't, some have EVFs, some don't, some have triple dials, some have no up-top dial. A real mish-mash. Then we have Alpha cameras to talk about (wait, NEX is an Alpha camera). Add in RX and QX and whatever new X or Alpha the Sony Imagineers can come up with and nothing seems shared, at all. Except a lot of use of the letters A and X. How does that save a company?

Meanwhile, the Nikon faithful are nervous. Technically, Nikon is still executing the same strategy they started with in DSLRs: multiple consumer models, multiple prosumer/pro models, iterated on regular (though now often irregular) intervals. Move features down from the top in the next generation, add new features at the top, everyone gets a new sensor. I guess we can call that a shared trait. 

Of course, Coolpix and The 1 are a mess at the moment, but we'll just overlook that on a DSLR site ;~). 

So why do I say that a single camera won't save a camera maker? Because of this:

cipa digital camera sales.jpeg

That's the current state of things in terms of cameras, with the 2013 estimate based on the first 8 months of the year. A single successful camera isn't going to turn that number around for anyone. 

To put it in perspective, we're almost back to 2003 numbers, and it's not yet clear where the bottom will be. The good news is that there is likely to be a bottom, and once we get there we might see some modest year-to-year growth for a period of time, probably in the 5-10% range but likely never above 20% again without a completely disruptive invention. Thus, for 2014 absolute best case we'd be looking at is probably 70m cameras, 2015 maybe 80m. And remember, that's a really best case. We'll also need to see that we hit bottom in order to have any hope for a good case, let alone a best case, and it's unclear that we have.

One way the camera companies protect themselves in this kind of market (or at least should), is to build compelling camera lines that sell for an average price more than the current ones, but with the same or better gross product margins (GPM). If your best seller today is a US$600 camera at a 35% GPM, you really want to move that to a US$750 camera at a 40% GPM if you can. 

I have a bit of a fear that Nikon thinks that their old best seller was a US$300 Coolpix with a low GPM and that if they can just push some more D3200 and D5200 (oops, excuse me, about to be D5300) sales at US$600-800 with higher GPMs, they'll be all right. Recent comments by Nikon executives about targeting better new products towards the lower end of the DSLR market are worrisome. Why? Because those are already darned good products and several generations of them (plus Nikon 1's) are still sitting in inventory. It'll take more than the usual iteration to win the game with models ranging from the J3/AW1 to the D5300. Moreover, those models don't target Nikon's most loyal customers, many of whom are getting more than a bit of angst over missing key products (D400, DX lenses, etc.) and quality control (D800 focus problems, D600 shutter problems).  

We have another product announcement coming this week from Nikon. So, before it comes along, just let me remind you that "no single camera is going to save a company." ("Save" in this instance meaning restoring Nikon sales growth and keeping the company profitable.)  What you should be looking at is whether any new product looks like it starts a clear, compelling, and useful move forward for that company. The Fujifilm X100 was that kind of product. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 was that kind of product. The Sony RX100 and RX1 looked like that kind of product, though Sony quickly raced to muck things up (QX100, anyone? [See my upcoming review of the QX10 on gearophile.com for an answer]). 

The corollary is that no single camera is going to mess up a company. So no matter what is announced or what you think of it, it won't be the actual product that's important. It'll be what it suggests. I'll have much more to say about that after the product has been announced. 

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