As the technology behind the region's leading camera brands continued to advance, product styling went decidedly retro. Innovation was shown to be alive and well, with high performance offered in increasingly smaller packages to compete with the improving photographic technology housed in smartphones. Yet despite exciting developments in the sector, any innovation was, for the most part, sadly unmatched by the brands' advertising.
The marketing of the breakthrough 12.3-megapixel Olympus Pen E-P1 and E-P2 cameras - an evolution of the 1950s classic so-called because it was designed to be 'as portable as a pen' - was aimed at an urban elite seeking a stylish combination of point-and-shoot scale and ease of use and sophisticated DSLR functionality.
Country-specific campaigns included the 'Evolve with Olympus' microsite in Malaysia and a Korean TVC that tapped into the growth of the high-end, advanced amateur or semi-professional consumer market. According to Danny Mok, chief executive of Grey Hong Kong and Shanghai, this attractive segment emerged over the past few years and is continuing to evolve.
"In the digital camera sector, DSLR cameras that were once only used among professionals have become a popular mass gadget among amateurs and leisure users," he says. "This trend has been facilitated by the introduction of low-priced entry models by major DSLR brands."
Asia became the world's biggest market for digital cameras earlier this year. Up to February, the value of digital camera exports to the rest of Asia from the big Japanese manufacturers more than doubled year-on-year to approximately US$385 million, according to the Camera and Imaging Products Association. The volume of DSLRs produced was up approximately 220 per cent when compared to the same time last year.
A favourite among both professionals and everyday consumers, Canon remains at the top of the camera table in Asia. The brand's heritage and wide product range put it far ahead of its nearest rival, Sony. In markets such as the Philippines, the brand accounts for more than one-third of total market share, while in China, Canon had about 28 per cent market share in 2008, CCID Consulting reported last year.
In the wake of a shaky financial year, consumers are spending again. Synovate's 2009 PAX survey showed the consumption of high-end consumer products has picked up after the recession, with digital cameras up five per cent. Canon's finance and accounting managing director Masahiro Osawa told reporters in February that the company is predicting an L-shaped recovery to the global economy and its bottom line. He forecast that this will be led by a bounce in business spending and a six per cent year-on-year growth in sales of all cameras.
Most growth is forecast to come from the mainland, with Masaya Maeda, the managing director of Canon's imaging division, forecasting a 10 per cent increase in sales this year building. By 2015 the mainland is likely to be the biggest single market for digital cameras in the world.
But while advancing technology and a continually growing range of new models has generated excitement among consumers, the marketing and advertising efforts of the big players were less thrilling. Observers complain that a formulaic approach fails to achieve differentiation. "The technology is far ahead of the connection with consumers,' says Prashant Kumar, CEO of Universal McCann Malaysia. "While I have seen a lot of advances in the [specifications of] cameras, the way they are presented is frankly very depressing to see."
Kumar is critical of the lack of adspend by camera brands on digital. Although Canon has allocated more to the online space, it is still a small proportion of its total budget. In Hong Kong last year, Canon outspent its nearest rival, Samsung, by almost 50 per cent, according to Admango data. Yet just 3.8 per cent of the budget was devoted to digital. The biggest share - around half - was spent on TV spots.
"This is the type of product that is made for a strong social media campaign, based around a spine like Facebook," Kumar says. "But I have yet to hear of any groundbreaking campaigns for cameras."
Top 10 cameras
This article was originally published as part of the 2010 Top 1000 Brands report.