It’s 2004, and a group of young entrepreneurs is working on a wearable camera geared towards action sports. Their experimentation results in a multi-million dollar company that launches a series of versatile waterproof cameras that can be attached to a person or vehicle in any number of ways. Their products have been used to film everything from spear fishing to paintball battles. Oh, by the way, I’m not talking about GoPro.
I’m talking about Contour, an action sports camera company founded by Marc Barros and Jason Green that bears a lot of interesting similarities to their better-known competitor.
Both were founded around the same time and both were born out of a desire by their creators to record their own lives. Barros and Green wanted a durable camera to wear while skiing, while GoPro founder Nick Woodman needed something similar to photograph him and his friends while surfing.
There is one big difference though: Contour shut down over the summer, while GoPro is posting record profits.
Contour’s cameras, like the Contour+2 and Roam2 featured a sleeker, more aerodynamic design than boxy GoPros, and offered a number of unique features such as GPS tagging. Despite this, and despite $27 million in earnings just a couple of years ago, the company closed down quickly and unexpectedly this August, begging the question: why did GoPro succeed where Contour failed?
One of the big reasons is a difference in marketing strategy. Marc Barros, one of Contour’s founders, discussed this problem in a recent Wired article:
Spending our money to get into a retailer, we quickly realized we had nothing left to drive consumer demand in a meaningful way. We lost to a company that built a much stronger brand, allowing its customers to emotionally connect with it. For years, our competitor GoPro’s insanely focused approach on inspiring consumers went well beyond the technical performance and functional specs of its cameras, enabling them to create a movement rivaled by few companies in the world.
Through sponsorships, advertising and exhibitions, GoPro’s energetic branding definitely served to set their product apart. And perhaps that sometimes caused them to put the cart before the horse. The GoPro Hero 3, in particular, was maligned for software glitches. But despite the occasional misstep, the GoPro certainly struck a chord among photographers, both amateur and professional.
And those photographers, once struck, built up a community dedicates to promoting GoPro photography and videography. There are websites, Flickr groups and subreddits that exist entirely separate from the company itself. And with every viral video on YouTube shot on a GoPro, the following grows stronger.
Contour’s sound defeat became final this August when its doors closed for the last time. But even with their departure, the action sports camcorder sector continues to grow more and more crowded. Pyle Audio is trying to beat the GoPro price point with its sub-$100 Hi-Speed HD Camera, while Sony and JVC are putting forward their own offerings. It will be interesting to see how the market unfolds, but these competitors are definitely late to the game.
It’s often said that photographers spend too much time worrying about the minuscule details of their equipment, but perhaps the same thing could be said of camera manufacturers. Based on comparisons of their footage and spec sheets alone, the technical differences between GoPro and Contour cameras wasn’t exactly vast, but the gap in market share was still staggering thanks to the way each camera was presented to the public.
Instead of technical perfection, GoPro excelled because its marketing inspired consumers, and established it as a marker of a type of lifestyle that people wanted to buy into. That’s not an alien concept to the still camera market either. There are plenty of low quality film cameras out there, but Lomography has carved out a healthy niche for itself because their cameras represent something to their customers: a certain type of aesthetic or personality.
To use another example, Nikon is trying to do the same thing with their Df, which sacrifices more typical body design for one that screams “VINTAGE!” and “REFINED!” It’s not about what the camera does, it’s about what the camera means.
For camera manufacturers today, especially those with unestablished brands, it’s not enough to just make a good camera. True success comes from effective marketing, branding, and community support.