Digital cameras and smartphones have become so pervasive that many people think film cameras are now fit only for antique collectors.
Fujifilm Corp., however, is bucking the trend, successfully targeting young female consumers with its Instax instant camera series, better known as Cheki in Japan.
The cute design has helped, especially in Asia, but for a generation that has grown up on digital, using a film camera is suddenly new and fun.
“Many young people have never used print cameras. For them, it is a fresh experience when the print comes out instantly after they snap a picture,” Yoshitaka Nakamura, who oversees Fujifilm’s Cheki business, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
The Cheki (coined from the phrase “Check it”), prints out business-card-sized photos instantly and has actually been around since 1998. The camera had a good run that lasted several years but eventually got beaten down by the digital explosion.
“Digital photography had quite a big impact, but the biggest came when taking pictures and sending them through cellphones really took off around 2003 and 2004. This really cooled down the Cheki,” said Nakamura.
In 2004, only 100,000 were sold — a tenth of its peak.
The camera began its comeback in 2007 after receiving an unexpected nudge from an appearance in a romantic South Korean television drama.
This got the staff at Fujifilm thinking, and they started looking for other producers to sell them on the camera’s dramatic potential.
In China, the firm asked models popular with young women to use the Cheki. Some blogged about it afterward, and their fans started buying the cameras for themselves.
The strategy worked. China is now the Cheki’s biggest market in terms of unit sales.
During the first Cheki boom in the early 2000s, most of the sales were in Japan. But now about 85 percent are sold overseas, mostly in Asia, according to Fujifilm.
Thanks to its regional popularity, Fujifilm expects global Cheki unit sales to surpass those of its digital cameras this year. It is targeting sales of 3 million Chekis worldwide, compared with 2 million digital models.
Now that the boom has taken hold among young women overseas, Fujifilm has returned to Japan with a heavy marketing campaign over the past few years.
“We thought that if we focused on selling the Cheki to young women, it would become a hit product again (in Japan),” said Nakamura.
This was also its strategy when the Cheki debuted in 1998, when “purikura” photo stickers were all the rage and young women were using them to decorate their address books.
The firm released its first new Cheki model in 10 years, the mini 8, in 2012. The mini 8 comes in five different colors and is packaged with young feminine consumers in mind. But the camera itself isn’t even featured prominently.
“Some managers were strongly opposed (to the package design) and asked us, ‘Are you guys serious about this? How come the camera isn’t out in front?’ ” Nakamura said.
The mini 8 is priced at around ¥7,000 to ¥8,000, while another model, the mini 90, has more functions and is priced at ¥18,000 to ¥20,000.
Targeting young women was a smart move. Fujifilm sold more than 300,000 last year in Japan, about double from 2011.
Nakamura also said that educating the digital generation on the fun of using film was important.
“When thinking about what was the turning point, it was of course good that the Cheki appeared in the South Korean drama. But we conducted marketing surveys at that time and found out that many people who were buying the Cheki had never seen it before and they were enjoying using film cameras,” Nakamura said.
“Because many young people have only taken pictures with smartphones or digital cameras, they are learning how much fun just looking through a viewfinder can be,” he said.
They also get a kick when the camera spits out their mistakes as well, and they can’t just delete their bad photos, Nakamura added.
To spread the word, Fujifilm has been holding events targeting young women, including in collaboration with nicola, a magazine popular among junior high school girls.
Fujifilm also believes Europe and the U.S. are ripe for an aggressive sales push.