By: Bob Kernen

Among all the enormous city state-sized displays, and scrappy start-up booths, one of the things that caught my eye at this year’s CES2018 in Las Vegas was the presence of brands that have been around for a long time, but are hardly associated the cutting edge.

From Blackberry and Kodak to Polaroid and Sylvania, they were all there, some in better shape than others. What was clear is that while there is undoubtedly value in a recognizable name, consumers’ associations with that name are what really matter, and changing those associations is really difficult.

Some of these brands are truly “legacy” and their products have changed little from their pre-digital heydays, others are playing the “retro” card, while a few have truly reinvented themselves.

Companies like RCA and Sylvania are largely in that first category. While their products may be modernized, upon closer inspection they are haven’t really changed that much. RCA showed off a number of pretty standard-looking TVs, and even a portable media player that had a slot for a DVD (kinda retro, right?). Sylvania still makes lightbulbs, they’ve just gotten a little “smart”-er.

The “shake it like a Polaroid picture” guys had a colorful, brightly lit display. And while it had a number of interesting digital elements, the center of attention was the old school polaroid camera, now dubbed the OneStep 2. The camera is still the same boxy shape as it’s been since the 1970s, and it still spits out your picture (on actual photographic paper) from the front. Polaroid has embraced its retro, analog past with gusto, and is trying to make it relevant to a whole new generation of Millennial and GenZ hipsters as the new (old) way of enjoying instant photography. And it just might work: if you use Instagram, you’ve probably noticed that their icon on your phone borrows heavily from the original Polaroid camera. How it ultimately works out for Polaroid is hard to say, but people at CES were definitely enjoying taking their pictures, albeit digitally, sitting on the giant Polaroid camera at the entrance to the booth.

Some of those legacy brands, however, have transformed themselves into something entirely new. Rand McNally, the map people for those of you old enough to remember, has completely changed their business. As printed maps have been almost universally replaced by Google Maps, Rand McNally has morphed their business into one that could be described as a “data” business. They use their massive store of mapping data to drive a number of new products, most of them targeted at a very specific audience segment: truckers and trucking companies. Among their products are digital driver logs, and purpose-built tablets for helping truckers turn any truck into a connected vehicle.

Also in this category is Blackberry. Even though they were arguably among the first smartphones to market, they were overwhelmed by the innovations that came from Apple and Android to the point that their handsets went from being ubiquitous to punchlines. Their devices may have faded in popularity, but at heart Blackberry was always a software company. Now their software operating system QNX has become a popular OS for a variety of embedded systems, including dashboards, where real time processing and high security are important. The “crackberry” may be extinct, but Blackberry has successfully transformed itself into a robust software company.

I was most surprised by the Kodak booth, where I found not a single role of film, but instead drones, solar panels and smart lightbulbs. All of these new products were found beneath the familiar red and yellow “K.” The company even made an announcement about a new crypto-currency (think Bitcoin). Not exactly the Kodak of the flashbulbs and film era. But as a company that has always relied on technology, Kodak was perfectly positioned to put its legions of scientists and engineers to work on new problems. It may be a smaller, more focused company, but Kodak is still in the game, in new games, and it’s got a real shot at redefining this century old brand.

All of these established brands prove that while brands can be durable, the technology world never stands still. Brands must work hard to constantly evolve and redefine themselves for consumers, lest they be consigned to the attic of nostalgia.

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