Campaign Asia-Pacific recently touched base with Tat Tso (pictured), the brand's chief of online for Asia, at its quaint and colourful two-storey store in a hip neighbourhood in Hong Kong's Sheung Wan district, where the vibe is closer to that of an arty design gallery than a shop selling cameras and related accessories.
A Hong Kong native who grew up in Canada, Tso worked in design and photography in Montreal and Toronto, but decided to come back to Hong Kong six years ago because Montreal was ‘too slow’ for him. He joined Lomography as a web designer, but followed a growing interest in business and marketing side to his current position, where he's responsible for the online business, marketing and art development of the brand.
Could you tell us a brief background of Lomography?
Lomography was founded by a group of students in Vienna, Austria in the early 1990s, who found a LC-A Russian camera in a flea market. They brought the camera and shot some photos, and were really surprised by the aesthetic photo quality that the camera can produce. And they very quickly found out that there were actually many people who were interested in this sort of snapshot photography.
The LC-A camera was a 35 mm compact camera made in the former Soviet Union. It is a lo-fi, casual snapshot camera. It is very freestyle. You do not have to think too much, and the subjects who are being photographed would not feel intimidated, hence the photos would look more natural.
How has the brand evolved now?
From the very beginning, we focused on building a community and a global network. Even though we are producing and selling an analogue product, we have embraced the internet even before ecommerce existed.
We started our website in 1996, for product information. Our users, who we call 'Lomographers' can share their photos and photography tips, and meet friends around the world on our site. We have over 1 million users per month. Our users consists of all age groups, nationalities and genders, who enjoy the aesthetic of film photography as opposed to digital photography.
People nowadays like to share photos on Instagram and social media instantly. Are you failing to keep up with the times?
We understand how the technology is changing our world. From the very beginning we built this community online to let our users to share this passion of analogue photography with other people. You have to scan the film photos and post them on our website. Or our development lab can help you to scan the photos. It sounds like a lot of work, but in reality, it is not. Lomography is like listening to old records, as opposed to listening to MP3s.
How is mobile technology affecting your brand?
A lot of people ask me this question, is mobile taking a lot of your market share? We do not see that. Actually our users and brand are growing every year.
In term of challenges from smartphones, it is not really on us. They are definitely a big challenger to point-and-shoot digital cameras for sure. Honestly we love what you can do with the internet, mobile and social media. We embrace the new technology. But at the same time, we use these kinds of technologies to reach even more people who may be interested in what we are doing, in our products and culture.
How do we survive in the mobile culture? We offer a smartphone scanner to let our users easily scan their film photos into their smartphones, to share them on social media and websites.
How global is your market presence?
Vienna in Austria is our headquarters. We cover the whole of Europe, have a strong following in the US and Canada and in South America, especially in Brazil. While in Asia, Hong Kong is our core regional office for over a decade, we have three stores in China, two stores in Taiwan, a store in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Bangkok. Our business focus in Asia started in Hong Kong and Japan, but we are now focusing on the whole Asia.
Our strongest markets are Hong Kong and Japan, China is interesting because of its huge market size, but it takes time to develop, other emerging markets for us are Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia.
How do you collaborate with other brands in doing marketing?
We have different levels of collaborations. For example, we have customised cameras with fashion and lifestyle store Colette in Paris and cartoon character ‘Where’s Waldo’. We work with celebrities, designers and musicians such as Elijah Wood [the main actor in ‘Lords of the Rings’] and Russian Red, whom we called 'Lomo Amigos' [friends of Lomography].
We have also partnered with Mubi, a movie screening website in the US to co-produce a LomoKino 35mm movie camera.
How do you manage to sustain your community?
Having our community is a strong asset, we have 1 million users per month coming to our website, and we communicate with our users directly in shaping our products and directions.
In 2013, we had an idea to re-engineer the Petzval lens, which was invented by Joseph Petzval in Vienna in the late 19th century, for modern SLR cameras for Nikon and Canon.
It was a huge project, and we needed the funding to re-engineer and reproduce such a lens. We told our users what we wanted to do, if they liked our concept, they could give us some funding to support it. In return we produced the lens, and they would be the first ones to receive the lens.
We collaborated with US crowdfunding website Kickstarter in August and successfully raised US$1.4 million from over 3,300 backers.
The reason why we did not want to launch this lens on our website or some other e-commerce sites, but on crowdfunding sites, is that we see a new demand in the market and a new trend that young generation of people do not just want to be consumers. They want to directly back projects that they like, and see the projects from an idea to manufacturing and then become a final project.
Marketing people need to find a new way to engage with users, as opposed to dumping contents to the users. We need to let them participate, to create a new level of engagement between the brands and the users.
How did you nurture a love of film photography?
My parents loved taking photographs with film, I used to see my childhood photos that were taken by my parents. As I grew up, digital photography took over, but very few people actually print out the photos. To me, I enjoy the whole process of film photography and holding the photos physically in your hands. There is a personal relationship between you and photography as opposed to what technology came later.