What Nikon Should Fix

Original article appeared 4/04

If I ran Nikon
Okay, it's a daydream. But I think it's a good one...

Over the nine years since a version of this article first appeared I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback, including some off-the-record responses from various Nikon employees around the world. I've considered all of those emails in updating this article for the new site design. The most depressing aspect is that I wrote most of the things you’re about to read for the first time on this site in 2001. Then again in 2004. I had to do very little updating to this article to make it current for 2013, which indicates that very little has changed. 

The Background
Nikon is an interesting company. I'm generalizing here, but unlike Canon, which has a decided marketing outward focus (be #1 or #2 in your product markets; advertise the brand advantage), Nikon is more traditionally engineering based and mostly inwardly focused. You're more likely to see a Technical Brochure on a new product from Nikon than a coordinated and well-targeted advertising campaign (the D80 Flickr and D40 Town campaigns being welcome exceptions, though never really followed up on despite the fact that they were successful campaigns; the current Ashton Kutcher-hosted campaigns are mostly about association, not product).

More than once I've talked with a Nikon engineer who was justifiably proud of a new product but perplexed about why it wasn't dominating the market. Canon treats their overseas subsidiaries as part of their primary business and expects marketing to drive sales; Nikon seems to consider their overseas subsidiaries as necessary distribution points that should be self-supporting, and expects quality engineering in Japan that is isolated from customers to drive sales.

The net result of these differences is that Nikon has built some fine products (though some seem to be more the pet projects of the engineers: witness the FM3a, the Coolpix !000j with its projector, the Android S800C, and the 85mm DX Micro-Nikkor), but has never broken through as the International leader in imaging that they really should be (after losing the initial leadership they had with the Nikon F and early film cameras). Canon's fancier and more ubiquitous advertising is what people tend to remember (quick, which famous tennis player touted which 35mm SLR? Yes, this is marketing by association, but you remember the product and what it does, whereas in the Ashton Kutcher commercials the product is mostly interchangeable). Nikon's surprise launch of the original D1 in 1999 took the world by surprise and caught Canon flat-footed, but it wasn't particularly well supported on the business and marketing side, so the early momentum Nikon had in DSLR sales didn't carry them for long. Canon's marketing of their D60 and later the 10D and Digital Rebel is a case in point: to get back market share, Canon became very aggressive on price, eventually undercutting the every-bit-as-equivalent Nikon D100 by as much as US$500 with the 10D, which eventually forced Nikon to lower their price.

In the first generation consumer DSLR wars (10D/30D/60D versus D100/D70), Canon built up a substantive market share lead (typically ~45% to Nikon's ~33%). Nikon's continuous onslaught of consumer models and price competitiveness wore this down until the market share positions reversed (Nikon 45%, Canon 39% at the peak). But Canon eventually won this back with something close to the old 45/33 position favoring Canon, despite the D3/D700/D300 successes. This is a good example of what I mean when I say that Nikon makes technologically advanced products (the D3s and D3x were arguably better than the current Canon equivalents when they came out) but seems not to carry through on the sales and marketing side as well as they could or should. Moreover, Canon has pushed more technology and features down into their consumer product line than Nikon, which sort of negates the Nikon foundation of “we’re better at the technology.”   

Why am I so concerned about the non-engineering issues and consumer marketing? Well, consider what history has taught us: Nikon once owned the advanced and pro SLR marketplace with the Nikon F. But Canon eventually eroded that by getting the non-technical side right (that's not to say they didn't make a decent camera, too). While Nikon managed to retain the #2 position in the 35mm film SLR market, they consistently lost market share over the years. There was even a time in the late 80's and early 90's when it appeared that Minolta's autofocus onslaught might manage to unseat Nikon's #2 position.

The introduction of the original D1 was much like the introduction of the F. It caught the rest of the market by surprise, it was well engineered and priced right, and it quickly dominated the pro market (this time for DSLRs). And while Nikon initially retained the larger overall market share (at least through mid-2003), the problems I list in this article, coupled with some slowness in delivering updated products, let Canon get the leg up again. In 2003 I made this prediction: regardless of how good the D2h, D2x, and D200 might eventually prove to be, Nikon would slip to 2nd in DSLR market share if the problems I pointed out weren't fixed. Nikon indeed did slip to #2 in market share in the pro market. Was it because of the problems I mentioned? Not completely. The D3 generation did indeed push Nikon somewhat ahead of Canon with pros again, and it was again mostly the technology that did it, not the sales and marketing efforts, though to their credit, Nikon did get some of the early D3 marketing right. Nikon remains vulnerable to others, but fortunately for Nikon, nobody else has exactly stepped to the plate, either. For every problem I mention that Nikon has, Canon has a different problem. 

Still, my contention is that Nikon should own the DSLR camera market at this point. A 50% share is not out of the question. It’s in the interaction with the customer that Nikon keeps hurting itself. This was true in the last part of the film days, and has gotten worse in the digital days. 


My Suggestions

With the above in mind, here’s what I'd do if I ran Nikon:

  • Cut the warranty run-around. Many ways could be used to deal with the gray market camera problem. The first would simply be for Nikon to stop supplying excess inventory to the gray market suppliers. Still, let's assume for a moment that gray market serves some purpose to Nikon (it can serve a purpose for the customer, too, as it effectively lowers prices), and thus should continue. The customer issue is that Nikon's current warranty and repair practices for gray market products are so unfriendly and anti-consumer that it makes one pause before purchasing any Nikon product. It most certainly hurts the used marketplace and uninformed consumer. My first act in running Nikon would turn that around. First, out-of-warranty products would no longer be refused for repair. Second, in-warranty-but-gray products should have a place that they can be shipped to for warranty work: a well-publicized repair station, even if that is in Japan. Third, in-country-non-gray warranties would run longer than basic warranties (note Nikon already does a form of this in the US with lenses). Fourth, there would be an obvious and publicized way to tell if a product is Nikon-imported or gray (e.g., the barcode on the side of the box, or a real identity card in every box) and any reseller found trying to modify that will be immediately prosecuted for fraud. Why is this necessary? Because current practices make it impossible to purchase used equipment reliably; because Canon and some other camera companies have less rigorous policies and thus attract consumers who are worried about possible repair issues; because consumers want to know that the company stands behind its products; because it's the right thing to do. Update: Nikon has gone back to including printed USA warranties for DSLRs again, a good first step.
  • Work closely with third parties. That means a full, modern, easily available, and well-supported SDK (software development kit) for every product, just like Kodak did. It means open lens mount specifications and remote pin-outs. Capture NX3 and other Nikon software products would be made "open socket" and extensible, and information on how to interface to these functions will be in their SDKs. Proprietary connectors will be freed (either they won't be used, or they will be made readily available to others, and pin use documented). All Nikon products would have open and extensive documentation in all but absolutely trade secret areas. That includes documenting the lens mount. Cameras themselves would be programmable as I outline in my Camera Redefined article (not necessarily by the end customer). Why is this necessary? Because when there are two equal-sized markets developers go where they get the most support, which right now would be Canon; because better supported products attract more customers.
  • Register serial numbers. Here's my proposal: Nikon would act as a clearing house for stolen Nikon equipment. As part of the longer warranty offer (see above) you would have to register the serial number. Should your camera/lens/whatever ever be stolen, you can then report it stolen to the database. First, the stolen numbers would be publicly available on a Web site (hey, look at that great bargain on eBay, what's the serial number?). Second, if an item with a reported stolen number ever shows up for repair (and since all equipment is now repaired by Nikon, it very well might), you're notified and the authorities are given the information they need to back-trace. Why is this necessary? It's not, but it's a marketable advantage over any other camera company that costs very little to implement. Update: Nikon does  decline repair of product they know to be stolen, though this can catch used purchasers by surprise the way it is implemented. 
  • Improve tech support. I can't begin to count how many times someone has told me that Nikon's Level 1 tech support has told them that the problem they were having was because they weren't using a Nikon-approved card. I believe it to be the incorrect posture (and Nikon did indeed loosen that posture after hearing many complaints; but you still can get the “it’s probably the card not the camera” answer from Nikon too easily). Nikon should be helping customers regardless of why they're having a problem. Each week I get emails from users who've given up on getting an answer from Nikon technical support asking for my help, so I know that the current level of support is not working for a significant number of users. And here's an amusing anecdote: I once had to call tech support on an issue with a Capture serial number change. The tech support person recognized my name and told me that he read all my articles and posts on the Internet because that was the only way he got good information to answer questions. Are you kidding me? If my writing is the best source of training for Nikon technical support reps, then the current training is indeed badly broken. [Note: I had previously written that Nikon should test and approve more cards. Someone from Nikon emailed to tell me that they had. At present some of the camera card support lists include as many as 42 cards, though from only four manufacturers other than Nikon, and still only a small subset of what's available and what people are actually using in the cameras. I had also suggested that Nikon needed to have more information and FAQs posted. They have worked at this, too, though the information is buried a bit in the NikonUSA site, difficult to search well, so it's easy to miss something. And you should be able to sign up for RRS updates about knowledge items that update. Nikon has made progress, but still has a long ways to go to be considered doing a better-than-average job at tech support.] Why is this necessary? Because photographic equipment isn't as simple to operate as a toaster, and customers appreciate companies that understand that and do things to address it; because the current tech support system still needs work; because word of mouth on what product to buy often is related to the level of service the customer gets, not the product capabilities.
  • Improve parts availability. Here's an actual customer nightmare that was told to me (I’ve got a long list of these, I’ve just picked one): a D1x body was sent to Nikon for firmware upgrade, cleaning, and check by an NPS member (Nikon Professional Services; members are working professionals who get faster service and close attention due to their verified status). Nikon's repair department told the customer that the shutter appeared to be near failure and should be replaced. The customer told them to replace it. Nikon said that the parts were on back order and it might be a long while before they got them. The customer asked for his camera back, figuring he could at least shoot with it until the shutter failed. Nikon indicated that they would not order a part for a camera that wasn't in their possession for repair. Say what? Essentially Nikon has told a working professional with whom they have a special relationship that their camera is about to fail, and when that happens they will be without a camera for a long period of time. This is unacceptable behavior. Yes, I understand that parts may be in short supply due to the strong sales of certain products. Still, I wouldn't tolerate such behavior from my auto dealer, and I don't think we should tolerate it from camera manufacturers, either. Nikon's current policy shows that they do not fully value working relationships with professionals (let alone consumers). Why is this necessary? Because professionals can't afford to be without their cameras for long, indeterminate periods of time; because long repair times lead to unhappy customers and bad word of mouth; because you shouldn't be stiffing your paying customers by using the parts supply to make new cameras instead; because short of having a working JIT (just in time) inventory system, not stocking parts is a potential quagmire.
  • Unleash the knowledgeable. Perhaps it’s an ombudsmen (see below), perhaps it’s a knowledgeable engineer or two, perhaps they need to hire a few Thom Hogans to be proactive, but Nikon needs a presence in the online forums and photographic communities throughout the world. It is so much better to simply give out reliable, useful, and accurate information and respond to questions than it is to let consumer communities run wild with speculation and innuendo. It’s no contest. [Side note: assuming spam blocking doesn't gobble it up, I try to answer every email question I receive. I do not get paid by anyone to do this. Just don't send attachments or photos with your email. And ask a clear question, don't make me guess what you want to learn.] There was one small, product-specific online forum that two Nikon engineers used to follow and post responses on, and it was a breath of fresh air. About a few Nikon products we got fairly accurate, up-to-date, and useful information because of that (and indeed, it even seems as if a few customer feature requests were heard that way, too). I'm sure the Nikon employees do this on their own initiative and on their own time, but it needs to be encouraged corporately. No, I'm not advocating that every Nikon employee get online or go to photo clubs every week, and I'm not even advocating that they answer every post/question. A policy of monitoring and responding/involving when necessary needs to be put in place. Why is this necessary? Because Nikon employees ought to be best and most knowledgeable Nikon product advocates, not Thom Hogan or Moose Petersen, Scott Kelby, Joe McNally, or whoever.
  • Hire and fund an ombudsman. Back in the old days, Nikon's service for professionals (NPS) used to have what essentially was an ombudsman. If you needed a repair expedited, weren't happy with something, needed a loaner, whatever, you could call up one of two people in NPS and usually get rapid satisfaction. These days, by comparison, NPS seems to be little more than a way to get early access to cameras and lenses, and to get equipment repaired slightly faster. I've barely heard a peep out of Nikon since re-joining a few years back, their NPS Web site still tends to be an out-of-date joke (the "global NPS site" at least has a somewhat complete calendar of events NPS is involved with, but other than that, you can see the tumbleweed rolling on by), and I've heard tale after tale of professionals who couldn't easily reach a human to find out where their equipment went. But even when NPS works, that only applies to professionals, and a limited group at that [disclosure: I am an NPS member]. So I propose that there be separate consumer ombudsmen for Asia, North America, and Europe. These ombudsmen would have a small budget (not controlled by the subsidiaries!) plus demo inventory to "do what's right" by the customer. In order to keep the ombudsman from being overwhelmed with every Nikon user question and complaint, the process for getting to the ombudsman would require that you show that you've first exhausted the usual method of problem resolution (which is another reason why Tier 1 and Tier 2 tech support have to improve). Why is this necessary? Because as cameras get more complex and expensive, there's more chance of a single lemon causing a bad taste in all consumers mouths (note, the auto companies have ombudsmen); because it's another marketable consumer-oriented service.
  • Fix the delivery issues. It's been clear ever since the launch of the original D1 that Nikon often has product launch problems. With the D1h, D1x, D2h, D2x, D3, D4, and D800/D800E they attempted to partially fix that by allowing NPS members to completely cut the line, which was part of the right idea, but wasn't always handled well and didn't address regular consumer access. Virtually everything Nikon has announced except the lowest end products has been slow to market and demand for them has exceeded supply in such an overwhelming manner that most people experience months of delay in getting a product. Long term, that hurts. When products are relatively equal in quality/ability but one is unavailable, the available product wins. Fortunately, Nikon has been lucky that Canon has also had difficulties keeping up with DSLR demand at times, though recently that’s not been true. Indeed, I have quite a few recent emails in my archive now where pros simply gave up on Nikon because they couldn’t get everything they needed in a timely fashion. High-end lenses have been a real delivery issue for Nikon with some of the lenses being completely unavailable through most of 2010, 2011, and 2012. Shortages of almost every key lens seem to happen with regularity. It doesn't really help to sell a body if the user is going to be frustrated by not being able to get the lens they want. And if lenses are bad, accessories are worse. Some cable releases have been out of stock for long periods of time, as have various AC adapters and chargers. Three things that need to be addressed by Nikon: manufacturing capacity, demand estimation, and delivery consistency. And until all three are fixed, this problem will continue, and consumer frustration will build. Why is this necessary? Because even professionals can't always get new products in a timely fashion, and guess what that means in terms of brand loyalty? Because you waste enormous money and energy building up the marketing message and then waste it when the customer doesn't find the product in stock today, next week, or even next month. By the time the stores have the product, the initial marketing has been forgotten or overridden by some other company's newer message; because you don't want to establish a pattern where every new announcement is greeted by the customer reaction "who cares, I won't be able to get one in the next six months, anyway."
  • Find a real marketing message. I don't know if you ever noticed, but every new Nikon SLR and digital camera has had a different slogan that follows it around. This slogan is used in the advertising, in the product brochures, on the boxes, basically everywhere the product is presented (F5: "Imported from the Future," FM3a: "Crafted for Your Personal Control," N80: "Engineered to Exhilarate," D1h/D1x: "Two Solutions, One Ideal," Coolpix 995: "Driven by your Imagination," or the day the creative department was apparently out to lunch—F100: "Professional."). Personally, almost none of these catch phrases manages to do much for me, especially since so many of them seem interchangeable (can't an F5 be "driven by your imagination?"). They also tell prospective customers almost nothing about what to tangibly expect out of Nikon products. You'll note that most of Nikon's messages tend to have an engineering implication to them, which does reflect the kind of company Nikon thinks of itself as. But did you notice that none of the ones I list say anything about images or image quality? Only when we get to the true consumer cameras do we get anything that suggests that you take pictures with these things—N55: "Make Sharp and Colorful Pictures," or N65: "Expect More From Your Pictures." Still, all this word play is somehow vague and insubstantial, and it really doesn't tell me much about the brand. Nikon needs an overriding brand marketing position that is communicated with all their products, in all their materials.

    Of course, some of you will point out that Nikon did introduce such a position: "At the heart of the image." Anyone care to tell me what that means to the casual observer? We get no indication of why Nikon is any different from any other imaging company, we also have to understand that heart is a metaphor. “Image” is also not the word most people would use to describe the end result. Moreover, I find it interesting that a company that thinks of itself of a precision engineering company would choose the heart over the brain as the metaphor—so the slogan is a real stretch for Nikon to embrace, I think. A more direct and meaningful variant would have been "We engineer the heart of your camera," or if we can drop the heart metaphor for a moment: "Better engineering makes better pictures" or " Engineering products that make better pictures." (These are, obviously, are simple and straight-to-the-point statements off the top of my head, and are used to illustrate my point, not to say that these should be the final Nikon marketing statements. Still, I wouldn't be complaining about this point if either of the last two were Nikon's new image statement, though I might mumble under my breath that they weren't very creative ;~).

    The "I Am…" campaign is another puzzler. Clever, and sometimes it works. But it has never really connected well to Nikon's world-wide marketing. 

    In short, Nikon needs something akin to Chevrolet’s “Like a Rock" or Ford’s “Quality is Job One.” And they need to use it everywhere and for a long period of time, just as the automakers have. And, lest I forget: any new marketing message must not be contradicted by any of the other problems I've listed above. Update: Nikon ran three campaigns that impressed me: the D80 Flickr campaign ("we gave Flickr users a D80 and this is what they did...") and the D40 Town campaign ("we gave everyone in a town in Georgia a D40 and this is what they did..."), plus the initial ads for the D3 that featured the motorcycle poster shot at ISO 6400. These campaigns actually worked well for the individual products (my next door neighbor wanted and got a D40 because of that campaign--they associated with the premise that they were just a random person in a random town). But these campaigns still need to be tied to a Nikon-wide thrust (as in "when we lend someone a Nikon, they take better pictures,  because it's a better camera"). 

    I fear, actually, that this short-lived improvement in advertising was solely due to the agency involved and not because Nikon themselves “got it." 

    Why is this necessary? Because Nikon's chief competitor, Canon, is very much a sales and marketing driven company that is better at delivering consistent and understandable messages to customers; because getting the message right helps attract the right customer. [Update: Canon seems to have taken a vacation in the US in 2010 through 2012, canceling trade show involvement, scaling back advertising, and basically pulling a Nikon. But I don't expect that to stay the case.]


Now you may have noticed something interesting in all my suggestions. I didn't say anything about improving products! That's one of the things that makes Nikon's current practices so bothersome: there's nothing particularly wrong with Nikon products. 

Indeed, if you go back and look through Nikon's product history, they have a long, storied career of building excellent products and then engineering them to be even better. Nikon does not tend to add features at a whim, it tends to quickly fix ergonomic mistakes, it eschews marketing gimmicks for real engineering advances, and it builds rock solid, excellent equipment. Yes, this means that they sometimes lag a bit on a feature here and there (IS/VR being the most notable one on lenses, full HD video on DSLRs), but each generation of Nikon products moves forward, not laterally, as I've seen with some companies. In short, it's not Nikon's engineering team that needs change. So if I were in charge of Nikon my primary goal would be to keep the internal engineering nature of the company intact while improving the external message, consistency, and customer contact.

Is Nikon listening, or will they suffer a heart-of-the-image attack? Only time will tell. 


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