Guest Post by John Kennerdell
Rosser Reeves (1910–1984), chess master, poet, novelist, political operative (he helped Eisenhower get elected), and father of the unique selling proposition. If that weren't enough, his name adorns one of the world's most famous rubies and he co-wrote a classic book on the game of pool.
From the late 1980s to the early 2000s I freelanced for two Japanese camera manufacturers, one large and conservative, the other smaller and less conventional. Even from my worm's-eye view at the bottom of a long ladder of subcontractors I could sense a clear difference in their philosophies. The big one exuded an almost paternal authority: they were confident they knew best what photographers truly needed. And to be fair, they usually did. By contrast the other one prided itself on its responsiveness to consumers, even if it sometimes led to chasing fads and fancies. I learned not to be too quick to judge one approach as superior to the other.
On one point, though, they agreed. Like almost every other company I know of in Japan, both passionately embraced the concept of the "unique selling proposition," or USP.
Born on Madison Avenue in the middle of the last century, USP is the idea that every product needs a distinguishing feature that sets it apart from all competing products. This is why even a toaster or a refrigerator in Japan cannot be merely a toaster or a refrigerator. It needs to offer "fuzzy logic," or "eco mode," or any of countless other contrivances ranging from brilliant to loony. And it's why you'll never see a camera introduced as simply "our new entry-level DSLR." It'll always be "our new entry-level DSLR with x," where "x" is some marquee feature designed to make you choose it over all others.
So here's my take on camera USPs, especially if you're a dedicated photographer: at best they should mostly be ignored. At worst, they misdirect both reviewers and potential buyers.
One variant of the Canon EOS 10. That red dimple on the lower right was where you pressed the reader to transfer settings. I'll bet most owners didn't use it more than a few dozen times, if at all.
This lesson first dawned on me back in 1990 with the introduction of Canon's EOS 10. It was a mid-level SLR promoted for a new gee-whiz function: it came with a barcode reader and a booklet of codes for 101 different shooting situations. You scanned in the code for your scene and then pressed the reader up against a sensor in the camera, transferring the appropriate settings. Voila, supposedly a perfect photo of fireworks or birthday cake candles or whatever else it was.
Ah, the Japanese love of gimmickry. Clearly any user over the age of 12 would have been better served by a booklet giving theory and practice for each type of shot, so you could learn for yourself. Right, and how many cameras would that sell?
While the barcode silliness might have put off some serious photographers, in fact the EOS 10 was a terrific camera, a real step up from the first generation of EOSs three years before. I bought a pair and they served me well for years. I don't remember if I even bothered to take the barcode reader and booklet out of their wrappers, yet even by then I was cynical enough to be grateful for them. This feature, lame as it was, couldn't have cost Canon more than a couple dollars to add to each camera, and was easily ignored if you so chose. Meanwhile it no doubt pulled in untold thousands of people who wouldn't have otherwise bought this model, essentially helping subsidize a piece of semi-professional gear at a mass-market price.
Here's a more recent example. Last year Panasonic announced the GF7, a Micro 4/3 camera billed as "The one that loves a selfie" thanks to a rear screen that flips up 180 degrees. I'm sure it's a splendid selfie taker, but the marketing campaign—and apparently most of the market too—missed the point that it also makes a wonderfully compact and responsive street photography machine. The thing practically disappears in your palm (it's only a tad bigger than a Minox 35) and yet produces files every bit as good as the top Micro 4/3 bodies. Even the kit lens is better than you'd expect.
The GF7 has already been replaced by a GF8, a trivial update with, inevitably, a new USP: a "Beauty Retouch" feature that can slim your body and smooth your skin. Say what you will but I've never looked more fabulous...er, no, I haven't tried it and you probably needn't either except maybe for laughs. Still, if you're looking for a really tiny camera with serious image quality, don't underestimate these because of the dumbed-down product positioning.
The basic problem is that the aspects of cameras most appreciated by accomplished photographers tend to make for lousy USPs. Imagine pitching them to a tough client in the Sterling Cooper conference room. "Feels exactly right in your hands." I don't think so. "The controls fall just where you want them." Bor-ring. "It takes a picture the instant you press the button, focused and exposed just the way you wanted it." Seriously Draper, that's all you've got?
In short, don't trust the manufacturer to give you the best reason to buy one of their products. Their marketing priorities are elsewhere. Unfortunately sometimes that seems to be the case with their camera design priorities too. But you'll need someone higher up the food chain than I was to tell you about that.
Photographer and writer John Kennerdell writes two columns a year for TOP. His past contributions can be found under his name in the "Categories" in the right-hand sidebar.
©2016 by John Kennerdell, all rights reserved
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Ned Bunnell: "Thanks for the great post John. Brought back many fond memories of meetings I had in Japan where we first had to agree on what the USP was and then develop a branding campaign that clearly focused everyone's attention on that single unique attribute. It was culturally very hard for my Japanese counterparts to not give all of their other important specs equal weight in a marketing campaign.
"As a joke one time (to get my point across), I made an ad for a new camera using PowerPoint. There was a tiny photograph of the camera in the lower right corner. The rest of the ad showed the specs set in a very large type size running top to bottom. Everyone laughed when I put this slide up and my big boss, with a smile on his face, said 'so, Ned-san, we need to focus on a single message, right?'"