Sell What You’ve Got

(commentary)

Since the D500 was announced there have been a few mumbles about “hey, wasn’t the D7200 supposedly the ‘flagship’ of the DX line?” I guess that makes the D500 the ‘super flagship’, right?

Nikon is about as tightly wound to secrecy as Apple is, though probably for different reasons. They’ve never released a road map to anything that I can recall. They discourage anyone talking about potential future products both internally, and to some degree, externally. 

To put it succinctly, Nikon is a “sell what you’ve got” company. When they only had a D7200 at the top of the DX lineup, it was a “flagship.” When they only introduced FX bodies above that price point, it was “buy FX.” Now that they have a DX/FX pro pairing, they’re back to selling like they were with the D3/D300. And all those previous generation bodies still sitting around (D3200, D5300, D7100)? Well, they’re marketed as bargains that are almost as good as the current models, which might allow you to buy a D7100 instead of a D5500, or a D5300 instead of a D3300. 

Some of this is cultural. Marching orders come from Japan, always. On occasion a subsidiary will stumble upon something in execution of those orders (the European “I am…” campaign) that corporate will then take over. But the prime direction comes from Tokyo. And that’s basically “sell what we’ve got” with some thoughts about how to do that. 

Loyal Nikon users establish road maps in their head. For example, the D70 to D7200 progression is so clear that it’s really hard to imagine there won’t be a D7300 (or whatever the name turns out to be). Moreover, the approximately two year cycle on that camera makes it somewhat predictable as to when (2017 folks). Likewise, the top pro model (D1, D2, D3, etc.) is moving on very predictable four year major updates, so we can make a mental road map of that, too. 

Which brings us to this: what’s with DX and FX? Why did Nikon say “buy FX” and “the D7200 is the DX flagship” and then pop out a D500? 

Technically, the D100, D200, D300 progression strongly predicted a followup. Those were all very successful cameras for Nikon, so why would they stop making them? I got a lot of flack from people during the “buy FX” era for insisting that Nikon should and would make a D300s followup. That they finally did didn’t surprise me, though the timing of it seems a little hurried (especially now with the one month shipping delay). But I suspect the timing is all about “hey the D3/D300 pairing went well from a marketing standpoint, why not replicate it, since we know how to do that?”

But let’s look at things a different way. Nikon is fairly predictable at iterating successful products. I can’t think of a successful product that sold in quantity that Nikon hasn’t continued to replicate right up to the point where it generated minimal demand. At the D3/D300 introduction Nikon really only had four ILC models:

  • D40x (derived from the D50, D40 sequence, and eventually begetting the D3xxx)
  • D80 (derived from the D70, and eventually begetting the D7xxx)
  • D300 (derived from the D100, D200 sequence, and eventually begetting the D500)
  • D3 (derived from the D1h/x, D2h/x sequence, eventually begetting the D5)

Of these, the D3 did eventually continue on the split with a D3x idea, though at such a high price that it generated minimal demand (see above).

So what do you think Nikon would do in 2007 with four successful models in a still fast growing ILC market? Yep: extend into new products.

And that’s exactly what we’ve gotten since then (besides the continued iteration of the established products):

  • D5xxx (splits the difference between D3xxx and D7xxx)
  • Nikon 1 (adds a consumer option below the DSLRs)
  • More FX bodies (adds higher end options with better margins to up sell)

Of these, the first and third options turned out successful for Nikon. I have no idea what anyone was thinking about the second: why something below your existing line should sell for more than your existing line is something that shows someone got greedy in Tokyo. 

The D5xxx didn’t confuse anything in Nikon users’ minds regarding road maps: it fit in nicely between two existing lines we all thought would iterate, so no problems there. 

It’s the FX addition—starting with a 50% more expensive D800 instead of a D400—that confused the Nikon base. When that was followed with D600, D610, D750, and Df models while DX went completely lacking above the D7200 (both in cameras and lenses), I could hear the screams constantly coming from the enthusiast/pro crowd that no longer understood what Nikon was trying to accomplish.

You can argue both sides of the coin here: (a) that Nikon was successful in its “buy FX” campaign; and (b) that Nikon made a mistake with its “buy FX” campaign. Why? Because many of the faithful just took the hook and bought the D800, which turned out to be a very fine camera (at least if you didn’t get one with the AF defect in those first months). You could use it as a D400 (DX crop at 15mp) in a pinch, though the frame rate was slower than you wanted. Given that the D800 was also the highest pixel count camera for a long reign, that also brought Nikon some new customers, too. 

But you may recall I started writing about sampling, leaking, and waiting about the same time as Nikon started their big “buy FX” campaign. That’s because I was immediately seeing the results of many people being told to do something that they didn’t necessarily want to, right as mirrorless options started to mature and come into play, too. Plus there was always Canon if you wanted FX, and at the time Canon was selling “buy video,” which opened up other temptations.

Personally, I think that Canon and Nikon are now to the point where they have too many options in their lineups. All that push into new product categories and lineup extensions right as the market peaked has now created this ILC product shelf for Nikon:

  • S2, AW1, J5, V3, D3200, D3300, D5300, D5500, D7100, D7200, D500, D610, D750, D810, D810a, Df, D4s, D5

Wow. That’s 18 models that Nikon has to “sell what we’ve got” here in 2016. I would argue that this is not only too many—even without the four previous generation ones stuck in the mix—but that this proliferation also managed to take Nikon’s eye off the critical wheel. I’m happy that we’ve got a Bluetooth Snapbridge on the D500 coupled with built-in WiFi and that it’ll be easier to push images over to my mobile device, but where is that on the consumer cameras where it's been almost insanely necessary but missing for years? 

I’ve written this before, but it’s worth repeating here: the camera makers are looking backwards at what’s necessary to live in the modern tech world. The smartphone and software makers are constantly looking forward. This has made the dedicated camera look more and more like a dinosaur and less like a Darwin Finch.  

I’d also argue that Nikon isn’t very good at “sell what we’ve got.” Oh, they’re good at doing it for the latest thing to hit the market because everyone reads the marching orders from Tokyo and marches, but the subsidiaries ability to continue to drive customers into dealers to pick up older products is now demonstrably lame, at best. This just guarantees that we’ll continue to have this product log-jam on the shelf there, including those previous generation cameras. It also guarantees that Nikon will end up continuing to dump product into the gray market to relieve inventory pressure from all the units they keep building. 

So, enjoy the new “flagship of the DX line” and “the new era in DSLR photography.” But as good as the D500 and D5 might turn out to be, Nikon is still the same old company doing the same old things. These two products are merely iterations of existing products. To truly grow, they either need to get better at marketing what they’ve got—and so much so that it negates the overall down turn in camera demand—or they’ve got to add yet new product extensions. Well, I’d add a third: rationalize and revise the product line so that we have a J6, V4, D3500, D5600, D7300 that truly provide the low-to-middle consumers’ photographic needs. Snapbridge is a start, but only a start. 

Bottom line: time to sell us something truly new, not another mild iteration.


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