Friday, February 15, 2008

Observations: Zink Partnerships Make Really Big News

Zink Partnerships Make Really Big News

Just when I was complaining about printer-specific products not getting enough coverage in the general and business press (see my December 2008 "Observations"), here comes a front-page story in early January from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The combination of Zink’s "zero ink" printing technology and Polaroid’s brand, distribution, and still-household name and legacy of instant printing combined to make headlines like "Polaroid back to its roots with tiny printer" from CNN, and "How to print photos while on the road" from USAToday’s Ed Baig, and propelled the miniaturized portable photo printer into one of CES’s breakthrough stories of 2008.

While the hard news about Zink and Polaroid, and their other partnerships with Alps Electric Company, FoxConn Technology Group, and TOMY Company are detailed elsewhere in the February 2008 edition of The Hard Copy Observer, it is worth looking at some of the factors that helped this story resonate across the huge trade show and to the world beyond.

Last year, Zink Imaging first broke the PR mold with its announcement in late January at Demo 2007, which I covered for the March 2007 Observer and in this blog. As a long-time Demo attendee, I had never seen such a direct hit with a printing product at the show famous for hosting the inaugural viewings of products like the Palm Pilot and Tivo. Moreover, Zink was a direct hit with the Demo audience by capturing the imagination with an iPod-sized printer and camera phone/printer combo. While these products were only prototypes and Zink was then openly and actively seeking "productization" partners (in a deviation from the "old" Demo rules of only accepting soon-to-be-shipped finished products), the zero ink products made for lots of buzz at the show and in the technology press.

This year, in choosing a communications forum to further the story, Zink rolled the dice in a possibly even bigger bet, one which Wendy Caswell, Zink CEO, described as an "important strategic decision." For Zink's partner announcements, the firm chose the mayhem and clutter of CES over the much more controlled and focused Photo Marketing Association show (PMA). Though CES is about a month earlier than PMA in 2008, timing was not a factor but positioning was. Seeing themselves as true disruptors, and with that stated intent, Zink made the decision to launch at CES to gain broader appeal outside the established printer and photo markets.

Zink sees the virtues of appealing to potential partners that are outside the grip of the "Innovator’s Dilemma." In other words, they are not relying on or expecting too much from existing industry players, who would turn down the opportunity to deploy Zink’s technology in future products, even if it allowed new applications and form factors, in favor of designing future printers around existing technologies that have already received a large investment in time and money.

Business students and others may recognize that phrase and underlying philosophy and attribute them to their originator, Clayton Christensen. It so happens that Christensen has close ties to Zink, first as an advisor and now as an investor, so the firm has a direct line to the ultimate expert in doing things differently by appealing to all new users, applications, and customers.

Caswell's enthusiasm for Zink and its potential for new applications and new users is infectious, and in a recent interview, she talked about sharing a Zink/Polaroid demo with none other than Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, while attending a Boston Celtics/Mavericks basketball game the night before. Caswell is far from a star-struck CEO, however, and she waxes more enthusiastically about the deal Zink made last spring to buy a media plant from Konica Minolta, located in North Carolina, and the progress the firm has made in retooling that facility in the interest of assuring a supply of special Zink media (and myriad envisioned product variations) for years to come.

Despite the successful Demo launch, execution was at the top of Caswell's list for 2007, and while partnership activities were clearly being pursued (in fact the ALPS announcement reveals collaboration over the prior 24 months), putting the operational side in place has been a top priority. Even the identification of the partners, which was originally planned for the first half of 2007, was clearly held back while details were sorted out and ship dates became clearer. Keep in mind, too, that two of the four partners (ALPS and FoxConn) are design and manufacturing partners that stand ready to collaborate on new products with other brands and go-to-market partners, in addition to Polaroid and TOMY.

The business side of the story is compelling for industry denizens, and clearly the CES forum helped spread the word. But this column is supposed to be about what made the Zink/Polaroid news so compelling to the national press. Think about it—an upstart company joins with a famous old name to put together a cute little gadget—how could it not be a big story? If you still have doubts, check out the February 2008 "Style Watch" edition of People Magazine, where along with the hottest "cute shoes, bright tops, and fun bags," you can see the Zink/Polaroid portable printer!

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