Roger's Corner

A Corporate Connotation

Published December 6, 2012

This is sort of a metaphor. Like all metaphors it doesn’t fit quite perfectly. Like all metaphors, it does fit to some degree.

“Fortune passes everywhere.” Frank Herbert

Once upon a time there was an industry largely dominated by two companies. Their domination, over some 30 years, was so nearly complete that they became understandably a bit arrogant. After all, their products were the biggest, the best, and by far the most popular.

They made tiny differentiations to create lots of slightly different models. They took care to make sure the largest, highest profit models contained features that less profitable models did not have, even when these features cost little or nothing to add to the product. They created a culture of  built-in obsolescence and rapid replacement. On average, people replaced their product with a newer version every two years, which was wonderful for profits.

When there was little to actually differentiate their products from others, they used Fanboy marketing to create a feeling that special features had special status, even though all of their products did basically the same thing. Advertisements no longer presented facts regarding performance, as they once had. Now they used celebrity endorsements, or mood-and-attitude advertising, which claimed  happy, successful people used their products. And insinuated those people were more successful because of it.

Some signs that their dominance was ending began to show. Other companies began making smaller and less expensive products that performed the same basic function. The big companies found these amusing at first, but when the smaller, less expensive products began to take market share during a recession they took notice and began to make such products themselves.

However, they wanted to be absolutely certain their smaller products didn’t take market share from their bigger products and carefully engineered them to avoid ‘big product’ features.

Not surprisingly, the smaller companies continued to take market share. “That’s a low margin business,” the larger companies then said, “we make our money on the biggest, full-featured products.” The bigger companies forgot, though, that younger people were the ones buying those less expensive products, and younger people soon become older people with more money. And a new brand loyalty.

They also didn’t seem to notice that while those little products were low profit for them, the other companies seemed to be making them profitably.

Soon the smaller companies were building products with a feature set that was every bit as good as the big companies. The big companies found they could maintain market share, although they had to give discounts and reduce margin to do so. After a while, even discounts did no more than let them maintain their production levels, while other companies began taking market share.

As profit margins dropped, the big companies took actions. They tried to monopolize repair service and make it a profit center to regain the margins they lost by selling their major products at a breakeven point. Since cost cutting had reduced quality assurance, creating more repairs, this seemed like a great idea, at least in the short term. Plus, handling all repairs meant they could limit critiques of their declining quality control.

The smaller companies took note and began marketing their greater reliability and offering clearly superior customer support and warranties. Soon, even fans of the big companies realized they’d be treated better and have fewer problems buying elsewhere. The small companies, whose products had once been considered inexpensive but poorly made, soon were considered to be of higher quality and trouble free.

Even as the big companies became dependent on discounts and rebates to move their products, the smaller companies raised prices and margins. People were more than willing to pay them, since their quality control, customer service and warranties were better and their features seemed at least equal. Now it was the smaller companies that were profitable and the big companies that were losing money.

As time passed, the big companies, while still big, were not considered leaders in technology or quality anymore. They depended largely on consumer inertia; that their Fanboys would remain their Fanboys, buy their product and tell others how great it was. Whether it was or not.

Eventually, though, the inevitable happened. The big companies declared bankruptcy (at least one of them did – as Colin pointed out in the comments), asked for bailouts, and had to reinvent themselves in a different way.

The two companies I speak of are, of course, General Motors and Ford.


Roger Cicala


December 2012

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Roger's Corner
  • Patrick

    Actually, Apple doesn’t care if you interact with their crappy customer service in India… The reason they want you to go into the store to download the update is so they can put you in a perfect position for them to sell you more overpriced technology!

  • David

    Great article that makes you look into all elements of consumerism.
    I agree with what Jack said above. But like to add my thoughts
    Nikon and Canon will most likely be replaced by Sony and Panasonic. Both Sony and Panasonic are the current Video giants, and the shift for video in Cameras my solidify their presences. We will see if the video world gets shaken up with Go pro and Red (although looking bad) or anyone else.
    Olympus might just merge with Sony or Panasonic as looks to be the case.

    For operation systems, I find my self really wanting a Laptop that’s running Android instead of the bad looking Win8. I have always hated Mac OS. Really Win 8 is like Android in that you need to reference everything with a live (hotmail) account. I also work with Linux (fedora) but Android I think has future promise.

    For editors I see Adobe being hit with current Capture One and DXO. Also I think the up and coming Topaz will have a huge hit, once they work out their Raw developer. They seemed to fix Adobe faults with plugins, I think they have chance to take over if the freeware Gimp, Raw therapee and UFRaw don’t do it first.

    Those are some of my thoughts, but you can also see it my job with microscopes. Zeiss and Leica are kings, Nikon is failing, Olympus is coming back with SIM and the small really small guys are moving in with very cheap all in one solutions.

  • You forgot Chrysler. They filed bankruptcy under Lee Iacocca back many years ago. They also reinvented themselves. They are still in business today.

  • Steve Buckley

    I’m late to the party
    Roger…but thanks…..now, turn your writers eye towards Adobe…and while your looking at it, help me find the sleeping Photoshop Elements Giant
    Have a wonderful Christmas.
    Steve B.

  • Vic

    The disruptive technology is the camera phone. Apple, Panasonic, Samsung, HTC, Motorola, Sony, and Nokia are all in the camera business now.

  • simon

    wooow not beeing american I don’t know much about the american automobile industry and I was thinking “how is this a metaphor when you are with no doubt talking about nikon and canon” even the monopolized repair thing fits perfectly. luckily for nikon they still have great performing cameras and canon seems to at least improve everything but the sensors.

  • Daniel


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