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The Whiteboard: When a brand concept turns obsolete: Two brands try to recover

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When you think of the Volvo brand in this country, you will mostly likely think of automobiles. And when you think of Volvo cars, you may still think “safety.”

From as early as the 1940s, Volvo carved out a distinct brand position that became the stuff of branding legend. Volvo focused its image on making the safest possible cars, introducing a concept that was largely ignored by other car manufacturers.

In 1944, it introduced laminated safety glass; in 1958, it patented the three-point safety belt (and made it available for free to all manufacturers). It developed the first rear-facing child care seat, reinforced side panels, side air bags and head protection systems, even a security system that could detect the heartbeat of someone (or something) hiding inside your vehicle.

But a funny thing happened on the way to building the brand into the leader in auto safety. The governments of most major countries said, "Hey, this stuff ought to be on all cars." And they made it so.

And with it, Volvo's key point of difference as a brand slowly became a series of parity features. The brand was effectively neutralized, point by point. Now forced to compete more on performance and styling as well as safety, Volvo cars have become an asterisk in this country. Sales in 2012 accounted for less than one half of 1 percent of the U.S. market.

Even its Nordic heritage has changed. Volvo hasn't been owned by the Swedish Volvo Group since 1999, when Ford bought it for $6.5 billion. Ford subsequently sold the weakened brand in 2010 for $1.8 billion to Zhejiang Geely Holding Group of China, and current plans call for a major push to grow sales in that market.

Brands often find their essence disappearing or even stolen. Witness the global patent wars being fought between Apple and Samsung over smartphone technologies. But the Polaroid brand is making one last attempt to stay relevant in a market that it invented — the instant photo.

Back in 1948, Edwin Land invented the Polaroid instant photo process, inspired by his young daughter, who asked, "Why can't I see it now?" after he snapped a conventional photo. While never a serious competitor to higher-quality film camera technology, Polaroid held a successful niche until digital technology passed it by and eventually put an instant camera in the hands of nearly every smartphone user.

Polaroid has made it through two bankruptcies since 2001 and is now launching a joint effort with Fotobar to create walk-in stores where customers can download, manipulate, print and frame their Instagram photos.

The first of 10 stores is set to open in February, and promotional photos show a striking resemblance to Apple's clean, white, highly graphic retail concept. (Note to Polaroid CEO Scott W. Hardy: Call Samsung for legal defense tips.)

Mr. Hardy said this about the new concept in a news release: "Polaroid is about sharing life's most precious and memorable moments. We have been, and continue to be, about self expression, creativity and fun."

All true, but what seems conspicuously absent from Mr. Hardy's description of Polaroid's brand essence is the word "instant," as in "instantly sharing life's most precious moments." Aren't all forms of photography about sharing life's precious moments?

What made Polaroid different was the immediate nature of its product. And during Polaroid's heyday, what was the competitive alternative? You had to take your undeveloped film to another location and leave it there for them to develop, print and return to you a few days later.

Ironically, now Polaroid is suggesting that you do exactly that. Anybody want to bet that this will work? Didn't think so.

Volvo may deserve a humanitarian award for leading the way on automobile safety, even if its brand ultimately couldn't be sustained by it. And the Volvo brand is doing relatively well globally in heavy trucks, buses and construction equipment.

But Polaroid missed the boat on digital technology as that became the new standard for instant photos. By contrast, Eastman Kodak, Polaroid's competitor, also took a big hit on its film business. But it has adapted well by expanding into digital imaging and printers and remains a smaller, but still profitable, brand.

Unfortunately, Polaroid's latest attempt with Fotobar seems far more like a Hail Mary pass than a logical extension of its brand. Good luck, Polaroid, and say, "Cheese!"

David Taylor is president of Lancaster-based Taylor Brand Group, which specializes in brand development and marketing technology. Contact him via www.taylorbrandgroup.com.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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