Kodak returns to profitability by turning to print and a little-seen Web series

How a former blue-chip marketer is finding a new kind of success playing small ball online.

"How do you stay relevant in a modern, changing world?" asks graphic designer Tad Carpenter, Instagram star and host of a web series for Eastman Kodak Company featuring commercial printing businesses around the globe. It’s a challenge that Kodak understands well.

The company once synonymous with consumer photography is now celebrating the power of print with a video campaign that evangelizes the message that paper—and the 129-year-old brand—are far from dead. In fact, they’re now tech-savvy.

The business-to-business campaign, "Press On," is a "rally cry to keep this business going," said Jeremy Schwartz, creative lead at Rochester, N.Y.-based creative agency Truth Collective, which developed the effort. The centerpiece of the effort is an Anthony Bourdain-inspired travelogue series of the same name. The message? The printing industry isn’t "this analog dinosaur that people think it is."

And neither is Kodak. The brand has transformed itself from a consumer-facing company to one that primarily focuses on business clients. The shift began in 2008, when the effects of the digital revolution came crashing down. Kodak, the no. 1 seller of digital cameras in the early 2000s, failed to adjust to the age of smart phones, Instagram and selfie sticks and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2012, ditching many of its consumer-facing products.

But the company’s B2B businesses persisted. Its largest, the Print Systems Division, is a soup-to-nuts operation that manufactures and sells everything a commercial printer needs with 24/7 customer support in more than 150 countries. The global operation generated $1 billion in revenue last year, and it helped the company turn its first annual profit—a modest $16 million—since filing for bankruptcy five years ago.

"The print industry is a significant percentage of Kodak's revenue today," said Kodak CMO Steven Overman, even though that revenue is down 8 percent from 2015, due partly to an unfavorable economic environment in Latin America. That’s why the "Press On" campaign "is very important to our business."  

The campaign began quietly in 2015 with an anthem video and a few print ads in industry trade journals. Carpenter, founder of the Kansas City, Mo.-based design firm Carpenter Collective, signed on a year later and now travels the globe visiting printing presses. He’s since shot "Press On" episodes in Germany, Texas and Missouri, the first of which debuted six months ago and the latest on Feb. 28.

Each film promotes Kodak’s printing products, such as eco-friendly Trillian SP thermal plates, which last longer than previous plate systems, and Sonora plates, which are free of chemicals and use a thimble of water, rather than gallons, in processing. Schwartz said he expects to produce at least two more films set in Asia and Europe.

"We're able to offer something that's economically efficient, good for the planet and ultimately good for everybody," Overman said of the company’s commercial print products. "That win-win-win is what the economy is all about."

Despite this triple win for the product line, the five- to eight-minute videos haven’t made a splash on YouTube. In fact, the most popular one has fewer than 6,000 views. Overman, however, stresses that the marketing is successful. The campaign, he said, has become the company’s most valuable sales tool.

"Where it’s used most effectively and most often is in direct-sales pitches with our customers, who are making big business decisions," he said. "It’s frankly less important for us that this campaign is exposed to the typical consumer, though we are happy to be transparent and have it posted on places like YouTube."

For further evidence, a Kodak representative said "Press On" has delivered 69,416 page views to its Print Services Division page, which is twice the traffic it normally receives.

And while commercial printers comprise the largest piece of Kodak’s target audience, Overman said there are two other groups that Kodak tries to reach.

The first is the motion picture industry. Although Hollywood does not represent "a massive part of Kodak’s revenue streams," Overman said it’s very important to the brand in terms of cachet. At this year’s Academy Awards, for example, movies shot on Kodak film earned 29 nominations, including "La La Land," "Hidden Figures" and "Fences." And later this year, the brand will release its Super 8 camera through a PR campaign centered on "filmmakers who are dying to get their hands on that camera."

The second group is consumers, but not the same customers from Kodak’s past. The new Kodak is focusing on "millennial makers." In 2015, the company created a capsule collection with fashion brand Opening Ceremony that quickly sold out, so it’s continued the collaboration to meet ongoing demand. Before summer, Kodak will attempt to make up for lost time with the launch of its first smartphone, the Kodak EKTRA, in the US—even though it’s already been panned by critics. And each week, it produces "The Kodakery," a podcast in which hosts interview creative people in film, art and science.   

While millennials and Hollywood bigwigs may seem completely separate from the commercial printing business responsible for Kodak’s comeback, Overman said they’re all part of the creator culture. Even "Press On" host Carpenter writes and illustrates children’s books, using Kodak’s systems. "Our print customers are constantly asking me to do more on the Hollywood and the consumer side because they feel that some of that reflected glamour and interest is going to help them sell Kodak services to their customers. There's an enormous amount of synergy," he said.  

For Kodak’s part, Overman said the brand will "press on" with commercial printers. "They're all entrepreneurs. It's a massive industry driven by small-business owners," he said. "Kodak intends to present itself as a partner that understands that."

Together, they’ve already climbed back from a near digital death and are headed toward the future. Overman is especially eager to move on.

"What I'd like to see is the world to just love Kodak and for Kodak to play a relevant role in their lives again and to not have to talk about things like comebacks," he said.

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