Lexus, Toyota, Scion

(commentary)

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In my article on What to Make of DX in 2015, I wrote that DX ought to be the compromise solution for the masses, but that Nikon was fumbling that away. A couple of readers challenged me on that, and suggested that it would be impossible for Nikon to market DX and FX side by side with somewhat identical product lines, because they were too close together.

As I replied to these readers, I realized that I had written about one solution to the product line problem before. A long time before. Before FX even appeared ;~). 

Marketing is about perception. Product lines are one of the ways you handle differences in perception. 

The problem I have with Nikon’s marketing is that they’re in the camera business, so they market cameras mostly monolithically, and they do it poorly. If you’ve ever seen one of the NikonUSA newspaper inserts, you’ve probably seen Nikon’s attempt at differentiation: we have small, inexpensive cameras (Coolpix), we have some small, inexpensive cameras that let you change lenses (CX), we have bigger cameras that are a lot like your dad’s camera (DX), and we have even bigger cameras that are even more like your dad’s camera, only expensive. But more often than not, Nikon uses the same feature to market across all the products. They’ve done that with video, for instance, and these days they’re doing it with WiFi by labeling anything with built-in or optional WiFi SnapBridge. Okay, so if all the cameras have the feature, what distinguishes a from b from c?

Nikon likes to do a lot of marketing cross-pollination across those lines in those brochures. As I mentioned, the latest example is calling WiFi in all their products SnapBridge. The problem with this type of marketing is that it tends to just make all the products look like they’re the same. It blurs product lines. Badly. Nikon constantly has a difficult time telling you why you’d buy a Nikon 1 versus a DX versus an FX (and oh, by the way, you should buy the FX, because that’s what we really want to sell you ;~).

In other words, Nikon is their own worst enemy. And has been for decades. 

The headline tells you my answer. To implement it also would mean that Nikon needs to pay more attention to how they design and differentiate products, too. 

Let’s start at the bottom: Scion. Scion was to be Toyota’s hip, configurable, fun auto line targeted at young, first time car buyers (e.g. just out of high school or college crowd, which today would be the Millennials). What would Scion be in the camera world? Coolpix and Nikon 1, basically. And what would that Millennial crowd want? Absolutely number one would be complete connection to and with their mobile devices. They want Send to Facebook in the camera. They don’t want to have to pull up what basically is an ingest app, get something over to their camera roll, then use their Facebook app. They just want to be able to tag something on the camera as Send to Facebook and it goes there. Indeed, I’d be tempted to call the missing button Selfie to Facebook ;~). 

Of course today it’s Facebook (and Instagram, et.al.), but tomorrow it might be something else. This suggests that simple things done at Internet speed are how you need to iterate those cameras, and that you need engineering teams right next door to those that are constantly re-inventing the Internet’s social future. Maybe you need to make Coolpix cameras that are a bit like last week's announcement, the DxO ONE camera ;~). But you pretty much need to be in Silicon Valley doing your development at the moment, or else whatever you come up with will be yesterday’s news when you finally announce it tomorrow. 

And cruft? The millennials seem to enjoy it, but they want to choose which cruft they install. Cruft is faddish. Stop throwing tons of features into the basic build of the camera. Make the camera configurable by software after the fact (which helps with the “keeping up with the Internet” problem, too). 

Use the Coolpix name for the Scion-like efforts, that’s fine. But the products need to be really cool, not just warmed over aging digital compacts with new sensors and new longer focal range lenses. 

Now let’s jump to the other end, the Lexus side. Much of what Lexus initially offered over the basic Toyota was customer experience, not necessarily product differentiation. The prosumer/pro side of Nikon needs to work on both of those, but especially the customer experience. A lot. A lot more than a lot: a lotta lot.

The prosumer/pro offerings shouldn’t be stuffed into Best Buy and other Big Box stores. Preferably, this would be where you invest in the Apple Store/Leica Store type of thing, but it could be done with the best of the current dealer base if they were supported well. The key element here is that the customer buying these US$1500 and up products wants to feel special from the moment they arrive to look at the camera. They want answers to tough technical questions, they want assurances on quality and service, they don’t want lots of mismatching and confusing feature selections (let alone have to spring extra for something that should probably be basic, like WiFi), and they generally don’t want cruft that gets in the way of the product’s intention: photography. 

A Nikon pro product in the Lexus vein should be the ultimate photography experience, to paraphrase another auto maker. And this product line is likely all FX (maybe including an FX compact of some sort, ala the Leica Q/Sony RX1). The best light gathering with the best features with the best design with the best customer support with the best repair experience should it be necessary. 

Funny thing is, Nikon’s been outsourcing more and more of their support lately, including repairs. The pro customer doesn’t care about who’s repairing the gear or where, just as long as they have good face-to-face relations with Nikon Service in some way and the product comes back fixed. That can be through those selected dealers even (e.g. drop camera off at local dealer, maybe pick up a loaner, go back to shooting, return when they say yours is back and ready to go). Heck, those dealers would die to have a reason for you to step in their door and perchance see something else you might want to pick up on your way out. 

The top-end customer wants direct, convenient, and communicative support and service. Something that Nikon doesn’t really give them at all these days. Not even the venerable NPS side of Nikon manages to get a lot warm feelings from the working pros I’ve been talking to lately. In other words, whatever the support system needs to be, it’s going to need to be far better than NPS is today. Which probably means we’ll have to pay for it, ala the Apple Care type of thing, but still, it needs to be provided, whatever the cost, or you don’t really have a premium product. 

The very first time I mentioned this splitting of the Nikon camera business into customer groups, I suggested ProPix for the product line name. Unfortunately, that’s not available any more (and might not have been originally in some parts of the world). So until we have a better name, let’s just call this Highendpix. 

Which leaves what’s in the middle: the basic product that most of the market would be purchasing. It needs to have some of the abilities of the new Coolpix (communicating), and it needs to be the training system for the Higherendpix. DX is nearly perfect for that. The smaller sensor size keeps costs and size down from FX but doesn’t give up a lot. Indeed, some might just opt for this so-called Consumerpix in the middle because of price, even though they don’t get the more white glove service of the higher end. The middle is utilitarian. It works. It does a good job. If you want a really better job, you have to pay more. If you want access to Nikon’s front line support system, you have to pay more. If you want loaners and hand-holding levels of service, you have to pay more. But if you just want basic photon transportation, the DX in the Consumerpix line is what you want. 

But that also means that the middle needs to be complete. It needs to cover the convenience shooter (convenience zooms) and the more serious shooter (primes and better zooms). It needs to have you buying into accessories that you can use with the higher end stuff if you decide you eventually need the best. 

This three tier thinking then needs to be spread throughout everything the company does. Weather protection? Disposable, splash proof, waterproof. Three tiers. 

Upgrades? Disposable, lens/flash/accessories, modular. Three tiers. 

New technologies? Disposable, trailing edge, leading edge. Three tiers. 

Firmware updates? Bug fixes only, bug fixes and some performance tweaks, bug fixes and performance tweaks and new features. 

Three tiers. For three tiers of cameras (Coolpix, Consumerpix, Higherendpix). 

Tiering done right is one way you can sell a DX camera that’s close to what an FX camera does and not really compete with yourself. The customer decides whether they’re in the disposable crowd (you caught that, didn’t you? ;~), the building a basic system crowd, or the building and maintaining the best system crowd. I wouldn’t really care which one I sell to a new customer. If they buy low and love what they got, when they need more, they’ll buy up a tier. The Scion customer becomes a Toyota customer becomes a Lexus customer. 

None of this would be easy. Nikon couldn’t even approach what I suggest without a complete management and cultural overhaul. Doing the right thing is never easy, and letting established self-replicating bureaucracies just grow and grow is never going to make it easier. 

I’ll give Sony full credit for trying, though. Money was coming in the back door via music, movies, and insurance, and rushing faster out the front door via consumer electronics. They absolutely needed a cultural change, and they got one. That’s what’s been driving the Imaging side of Sony's business towards some different decisions lately, rather than just blindly incrementing the past decisions. 

So maybe Nikon doesn’t embrace my three tier product line idea. But it needs to do something. Today Nikon can’t really explain why I’d want anything other than an FX camera, and they can’t live off of FX alone. To use the money analogy: less money is coming in the front Coolpix and DX door these days, and it’s exiting faster than ever out the medical acquisitions and prop-up-the-rest-of-the-company doors. 

Message to Nikon: change now or the market will change you.


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