Nikon To-Do List

This is the time of year that Nikon does a lot of reflection. They've just posted their big top-management promotions, they're looking at what will be the final numbers for their fiscal year (ends at the end of this month), and they're currently deep into discussions about what they'll announce in May as operational and management goals for the coming year. Typically, Nikon would have also made their big product announcements for the year at this point, but we all know that didn't happen.

So let's come up with a To-Do list for Nikon for their fiscal 2019 (April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019). Instead of the "pennies and heads" statements we tend to hear from Nikon (e.g. "we'll cut costs, we have a new management directive"), let's tackle this list from the customer point of view. 

Here's my to-do list for Nikon:

  1. Launch a new mirrorless product. This new product needs to be compelling in some fashion. We also need to understand what the future holds for Nikon's mirrorless initiative, which means that not only do we need a great product launched, but we need a lens road map, and probably even a more general mirrorless road map. Quite frankly, the marketing aspects of this launch are much more important than the actual product definition, which is almost certainly the inverse of Nikon's usual launch tendency.  Let me put it succinctly: lots of buying decisions are riding on what Nikon does here. I've got a huge stack of emails from people saying "I'll see what Nikon is going to do, then make my decision about whether to buy a Fujifilm or Sony mirrorless camera." Not a small stack. A really huge stack. Nikon's faithful has given the company some benefit of the doubt, but they now realize that they have credible options, and are ready to go with them if Nikon doesn't have the right product for them and say the right things.
  2. Return momentum to the lens lineup. Nikkors have been made almost by formula for quite some time: start no more projects than result in four to six new lenses a year; mostly updates of things already done; be reticent to go far from the established line. NikonUSA's lens database shows 99 (!) current Nikkors you can get. Unfortunately, 24 of those are near duplicates or older models of newer lenses, and 12 are still manual focus lenses held over from over five presidents ago. Another 6 are pre-digital holdovers (e.g. the f/2.8 primes). Which means there really are only 57 current and unique Nikkors on the market at the moment. That's decent, but it doesn't represent a lot of change in the historic average, and that has to cover two user bases, DX and FX. Moreover, there are tons of lenses needing updates (the 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor, for example) and lots of holes in the DX lineup. The seven (!) 50mm options have to be a cruel joke of some sort considering that all of them look terrible on a D850. Thing is, there are gems in what Nikon has done in the last ten years (the 70-200mm f/2.8E and the 300mm f/4 PF come to mind quickly). But they feel few and far between. It just doesn't feel like there's a lot of energy coming out of the optical side of a company that is celebrating 100 years of optical excellence. 
  3. Drop the CES approach and adopt a high tech approach. This needs a bit of explanation. The traditional Japanese CES (consumer electronics) approach has been to build boxes and sell them. Those boxes never get updated, they get replaced with next year's model. The high tech approach is to ship early and finish features/performance in updates. Both approaches have their pluses and minuses. But notice that Fujifilm is getting raves for using the high tech approach even when they've shipped something that probably was more a beta product, while Nikon is getting blasted for being late and lame with any firmware updates to address real problems (AF-P VR function, anyone?). If you think you're using the CES approach, you believe you're done with a product when you ship it. Everyone's moved on to something else, and thus, should you discover you need to fix something in the product that shipped, there's no one around to do it. Late and lame will be the fix. Which brings me to:
  4. Fix SnapBridge. Right idea, wrong implementation. Worse, it's in every product now, and it's making some products feel wrong in at least one aspect (e.g. D500, D850 battery performance). Even the D7500 has at least five different menu items associated with SnapBridge (more if you add the i button and some other nuances). Nikon has concentrated on making the initial connection simple and easy. And they didn't really get that right. The current implementation just adds more handholding steps and explanation text, it doesn't make the connection quicker or more reliable. Nikon also isn't tackling SnapBridge from the customer's view. The customer says "I want to send this picture I just took to my Instagram account." Nikon says "use SnapBridge." While technically correct, that doesn't help the customer figure out how to do it. Moreover, once they've turned SnapBridge on, they wonder why battery life is getting sucked out of their camera, and they can't exactly figure out how to stop that. Airplane mode doesn't always do what people think it should. This is a mess, but the way it gets fixed is:
  5. Begin thinking more like a customer. Indeed, I'd go further and say that Nikon needs to do much more to engage and embrace customers. Nikon needs to hear about customer perception and problems directly from the customers, not through sporadic sloppy surveys, tons of intermediaries, and via lots of informal translation.  Nikon tends to be paternalistic. Yes, there's a knowledge database on the Nikon Web sites, yes the Ambassadors go around to trade shows and give talks, yes customer service will attempt to answer your question if you call them. But it's all "the customer has to come to Nikon and then accept what they're given." There's really no customer engagement. I won't publish the exchange I just had with a Nikon employee, as his email makes the claim I can't copy and publish it—almost certainly without legal authority here in the US, but that's his company's wish, so I'll follow it—but it was rude, non-responsive, and indicated no willingness to listen or learn from a customer whatsoever. How do I feel as a customer? Ignored and unappreciated. Is that the way Nikon wants customers to feel? And remember, I'm a customer who happens to talk to and engage more than two million of Nikon's other customers a year.
  6. Get the marketing engine working properly. I can't begin to count the number of Nikon employees whose business cards have the word "marketing" on them. I've got dozens of such sitting in my Rolodex. Heck, given how many have the title of Vice President of some such aspect of Marketing on them, there could be dozens of VPs of marketing walking the corridors in Tokyo. And yet, marketing seems to be a persistent problem for Nikon. I stopped asking to get on a press release list years ago, because it just never happened, despite constantly asking (Canon, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony have me on their lists, by the way). The only Nikon marketing employee that has ever reached out to me about something I wrote was a Nikon Europe manager. He corrected something I wrote, I investigated, I rewrote my piece. Gee, is that the way it's supposed to work? ;~) Or take the D7500. Boy did it get slammed on the Internet when it came out. Mostly because Nikon's marketing did little to correct the impression that the camera was a step backward from the D7200. I'll be reviewing the D7500 shortly, and my review is actually going to be quite positive. Indeed, at times I felt like I must be using a different camera than the Internet perception was describing. That's Nikon's fault. Marketing is about creating, maintaining, and moving customer perceptions. 

The funny thing is that Nikon knows how to create great products. The D5 is the best autofocusing camera available. The D850 is the best all-around camera you can currently buy. The D500 is the best crop sensor performance camera available. Even the consumer DX models are better than their competition when viewed head-to-head. The 70-200mm f/2.8E sets new standards for telephoto zooms. The 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P surprisingly isn't far behind; it certainly sets a standard for consumer telephoto zooms. Many of the recent primes—the 105mm f/1.4 comes to mind—are exceptional lenses. 

In other words, the engineering teams at Nikon are still making really good products. You'll notice I didn't put "fix engineering" on my to-do list, other than the SnapBridge bit. 

I also didn't put "embrace third-party products" on my list, though if I were in charge at Nikon I certainly would be attempting some variation of that. Why isn't it on my list, then? Because I know that Nikon sees themselves as all proprietary all the time and they aren't about to make the change to open eco-system any time soon. If you're not going to do it, it shouldn't be on your to-do list ;~). 

Being proprietary does, however, mean that those other things on the list become more important. That's because Nikon and Nikon alone is responsible for how things end up at the end of the year. 

So let's crowd-source this a bit. Send me your Nikon to-do list for the coming year.

text and images © 2018 Thom Hogan
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