Back from the dead, the iconic brand is following Lady Gaga into the future.In 1943, while vacationing with his family in Santa Fe, N.M., Edwin Land had a question posed to him. His daughter wondered why they couldn’t take photos and see the pictures right then and there. Most fathers would listen indulgently and be happy to have a curious child. Land, who co-founded the Polaroid company, which then specialized in making polarizing filters for various lenses, spent the next five years developing the first Polaroid Land instant-picture camera. It debuted in 1948, was priced at $95 (which, accounting for inflation, was nearly twice as much as today’s gadget du jour, the iPad), and it sold out almost instantly.
More than half a century later, the Polaroid camera ranks among America’s most iconic brand-name items. Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe created fine art with it. James Garner, Mariette Hartley, Sir Laurence Oliver and the Muppets all starred in commercials for the famous camera. And, earlier this year, Lady Gaga gave her seal of approval to Polaroid. The hit-making sensation was named creative director, and next year, a line of Lady Gaga Polaroid cameras will be released.
The company, which is bouncing back from financial difficulties at a time when digital imagery makes Polaroid’s instant pictures seem quaint and expensive, is banking on Gaga to amp up its relevancy among a new generation of consumers. “We needed someone who is a pop-culture phenomenon,” says Scott Hardy, president of Polaroid. “She is a huge Polaroid fan, she has a unique relationship with her fan base, and she understands all the converging technologies. It’s important for us to figure out how to address the younger demographic and how to communicate with that market.”
One way is through the company’s line of PoGo cameras, which merges a digital camera with a battery-operated, pocket-size instant printer that can be used to make 2-inch-by-3-inch prints on the fly. It is augmented by the Polaroid 300 camera, which produces instant pictures of the same size with a sticky backing. The new Gaga-approved line will imbue current offerings with a sheen of hipness that Polaroid can’t achieve on its own. “People won’t look at the product as a printer,” believes John Pollock, director of product development. “They’ll see it as a cool, amazing product that Lady Gaga helped design. She has a unique eye and consults with us on creative direction in terms of marketing [and the] look and feel of products. What we are coming out with in 2011 will have her design print all over it.”
The injection of youthful creativity is coming just in the nick of time. Back in the days before digital cameras became ubiquitous, Polaroid’s offerings seemed incredibly modern. Folks craved the immediate gratification that came with instant pictures. But as the market for digital cameras grew, demand for products made by Polaroid withered. In 2001, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and a subsidiary of Bank One bought most of Polaroid’s assets. Things did not get better from there. Film sales plummeted (from an all-time high of 120 million 10-packs sold per year), and the manufacturing of cameras ceased in 2007. In 2008, once again in bankruptcy, Polaroid was purchased in 2009 for $87 million by Boston-based financial-services firm Gordon Brothers Group and Canada’s Hilco Consumer Capital. The partnered owners currently seem intent on saving the brand and providing the resources to help revive the public’s interest in Polaroid. Revenues for 2010 have been projected to reach as much as $500 million.