We've known that Syntax-Brillian, US-based holder of the Vivitar camera and accessory name, has been in a dire financial position after their Chapter 11 filing in July. The latest word on Syntax-Brillian and the once well-regarded Vivitar brand came this week, with the announcement that Vivitar's UK assets would be auctioned off, and that consumer products conglomerate Sakar International would assume rights to the Vivitar name.
Buried in the announcement is the suggestion that Sakar – the second diversified firm to hold the Vivitar brand in the last two years – apparently intends to play hard ball with new Vivitar models. Not at the bottom of the market, like Syntax-Brillian did, but squarely in the middle, facing off against the likes of Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Olympus for consumer dollars. Per the announcement from Sakar, "The Vivitar-branded cameras that Sakar plans to introduce will sell for $70 to $300, enabling the company to reach a new market segment that will significantly broaden its customer base and market penetration."
What's not being talked about at all at this point is exactly how Vivitar's new mid-priced models will be developed (the announcement only went so far as to say that new products "will leverage Vivitar's existing SKUs, patents and engineering expertise"), or exactly what form the company envisions the products to take. From all appearances, it's another classic case of an investor seeing an opportunity with a well-known optics brand and jumping on it. Syntax-Brillian did the same thing with Vivitar in 2006, in fact, and while the company's recent financial woes appear to be more the result of their heavily invested Olevia HDTV brand, there may be an important lesson in this for the next holder of the Vivitar name.
We see this pattern over and over again in consumer electronics – the rush to flood a market with "competitive" (read: look-alike) rebranded products from either unknown newcomers or revived classic brands. Now, I didn't go to business school, but here's what common sense says: in a market without lots of competition, this bandwagon approach may work, offering consumers more similar options amid limited overall choice. In a market that's as jammed packed as the consumer camera space at the moment, however, doing the same thing that your established, well-regarded competitors are doing at the same price isn't a particularly effective means of taking market share. Consumers are both brand conscious and brand loyal, especially where optics and imaging are concerned. Call up GE's consumer imaging division and ask them if you don't believe me.
And no, having a once-respected brand name like Vivitar is no replacement for organically building the kind of corporate reputation enjoyed by a Canon or a Nikon. Vivitar's been living in the bargain basement so long at this point that even older photographers have largely forgotten that they were once a well-respected equipment importer and mid-priced optics manufacturer. Reference to the legendary (and still widely used) Vivitar 283 flashgun might buy you something in the more advanced segment of the market, but in the middle territory of $70 to $300 that new parent company Sakar is aiming for, you're basically starting from scratch.
With even established brands like Pentax struggling to find a profitable niche for their point-and-shoot lines at the moment, if I was in Sakar's position I'd think long and hard about what I was bringing to market before pulling the trigger. In a time when consumer spending is tightening up, differentiation is key; what works for Canon, Sony, or Panasonic in the middle tier of the digicam market will not work for Vivitar, for the reasons outlined above. If Sakar succeeds in reviving the Vivitar brand name, it will be on the strength of good product. Incidentally, the last few attempts of this kind have largely failed because their models have ignored that one crucial aspect of the equation – the actual cameras. If the product itself isn't compelling, great branding means nothing.
I'm excited that someone else is taking a crack at the market with Vivitar, because it's not as if there isn't room for more innovation in the mid-priced segment of the market. What about a simple, metal-bodied P/A/S/M compact for $300? It would fit brilliantly with Vivitar's heritage (stick a hot shoe on the bad boy and let shooters user their 283s, even), and would really work to revive the brand among serious photographers. What about a super-thin ultracompact with a wide-angle prime lens? Could be a direct competitor to what Panasonic's doing, but with the twist of fixed-lens image quality.
Unfortunately, initial impressions are that Vivitar's new owners are thinking down a much more conventional road of generalist cameras for mass consumers, photo frames, even the dreaded "licensing opportunities." Admittedly, Sakar and Vivitar don't seem to have the wherewithal to do the kind of independent development suggested above, but it seems to me that the consequences of taking the Vivitar name down the anonymous rebrand road for a second time have even less chance of succeeding. The fact that Vivitar has no short-term prospects of competing with Canon and Kodak on Target shelves apparently won't stop the brand's holders from thinking in the same broad-appeal direction that does nothing to focus a product line or establish presence.
I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this one will be different, but I'm certainly not holding my breath.