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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Hasselblad's Long, Strange, Trip

We have H in the news again, in a small way, and no doubt all three of my readers are wondering when I am going to weigh in. The latest news, in a bizarre twist, almost literally marries two of my favorite topics for gossip and speculation, about which more in a moment.

A little back story. I have been beating the same little drum for a while now, to wit, that H hired Perry Oosting to investigate whether Hasselblad could position itself as a luxury brand. I offer three bits of evidence for this, which you may find slender or no. 1) Oosting's history with luxury brands, 2) The apparently not very successful Hasselblad "snap on" camera for the apparently mildly successful Lenovo Moto Z phone and 3) The X1D camera which seems to be finding success, but perhaps with a different demographic than expected or hoped for?

Recall one of my other little drums: There are people who just want pictures, and there are people who like cameras. There are also people who like photographs and photography. These groups overlap to a degree, but the markets should be treated differently. The people who just want pictures use their phones, period, full stop.

My theory is that what Oosting was looking in to was whether Hasselblad could penetrate the market of extremely wealthy people who Just Want Pictures, and that he discovered that the answer was "No."

In the process, H built this X1D camera which was an unexpected success. My theory continues that Hasselblad did a little digging and found that there was a pretty good sized market, still, people who like cameras and who also have more money than sense. The last bit of my theory is that they discovered that many of these people live in China, or nearby. My guess is that they discovered that they had a lot of orders for the X1D from the Pacific Rim, and that some further investigation discovered that it was not (alas) wealthy oligarchs who just wanted pictures, but rather wealthy dopes who like cameras.

Perry Oosting then pivoted and told his Board of Directors that Hasselblad did indeed need to return to its roots, which have always been extracting money from the well heeled camera lover. There is no billion dollar play putting a H branded widget in every trophy bride's purse, but there are still plenty of well heeled gearheads out there.

Note, though, that the official story since Oosting's hire was always a return to the roots, so it's possible that my "luxury play" side trip is entirely my fantasy, and what we're seeing it actually H staying the course, returning to their roots, since the day they hired Oosting.

Back to my fantastical tale spinning. The deal with DJI then serves two purposes, the first being of course money, the second being to place a couple of wealthy chinese gearheads on the Board of Hasselblad.

The next move was to hire the patron saint of gearheads, a guy who shows no evidence of even liking photography very much but who adores cameras, as the "Chief of Strategy". Yep. Ming Thein works for Hasselblad now, in this vaguely defined role.

Why? Well, there are many possible reasons. Ming's vast knowledge of business is not among them, H being owned by a private equity firm (such firms are, literally, in the business of supplying business acumen to beleaguered firms). Ming's vast knowledge of camera user experience is likewise not a likely reason. In the first place he's at least as idiosyncratic as the average camera user, and in the second place you can simply buy or rent that skill from any number of sources. No reason to hire the guy as a Chief Anything.

No, they want him for his perceived influence. The other bits and pieces are better than a poke in the eye; not having to explain "P&L" might save a little time one day, and I'm sure Ming will have many suggestions for the engineers (which they will, mostly, ignore - I know how engineers operate). While perhaps handy, these are not the underlying reasons for making Ming a Chief Something or Other.

Mostly, they want a gearhead's gearhead pushing their name out there, pushing the idea that the 100 megapickle sensor is simply the shiznit, and so on. It is also possible that H sees an advantage in hiring an Asian here. The politics of ethnicity on the Pacific Rim are not a swamp I would ever choose to wade in to, largely because I have no idea beyond "it's extremely fraught". Still, it's possible that from Sweden it looked like a good idea, and for all I know, it is an excellent one.

H is hiring a senior mechanical design engineer in Sweden, and a project manager (no location given), right now. This means they have plenty of projects in the pipeline, and are looking to ramp up capacity on the design side. Interestingly, both jobs require English fluency, but not Swedish.

My guess is that they've got a 100 megapickle X1D-like object in the works, and that Mr. Thein will be at some pains to explain to us all why it is, really, the only camera that a truly discerning artist can possibly use. Well, I mean, obviously if your standards and skills are not at the Very Highest Level you don't need it. But for the few, the exalted, the X2D-100c wunderkamera is the only thing that will really suit.

Ming has done a truly masterful job, in hindsight, of using the "look, it's not the camera, it's the photographer" theme, and twisting it slightly, to make absurdly expensive gear look like a must have but only for the truly elite which is just a goddamned piece of marketing wizardry. He's turned a truly egalitarian idea literally on its head to sell Veblen goods. Hat's off to Ming! Huzzah!


  1. Hasselblad have done what a lot of other makers seem to do, but are a bit more upfront about it. I see a lot of bloging and "educational" video/you tube big names seem to get offered and have cameras etc. provided for them by the makers. Usually the ones who talk about how good this or that new lens or body is along side their usual fare of how I work and how to do x. Personally it looks to me that it is those "photographers" who have a good following are at the least given the keys to the candy cupboard if not more. Ming's appointment I would think is more along these lines, he has a large loyal following, perhaps due to not following complicated themes. Have to admit not having visited his site for a good long time though as it left me somewhat cold, it might be more intricate now.

    1. I think both parties have done well.

      What I am interested in, though, is not how clever or not the various players are, but what it signals. While Ming may or may not actually have much role in *setting* strategy at H, his appointment certainly makes a lot about the strategy clear, and allows some intelligent guessing about more.

      Which is what I was attempting to get at above with, I dare say, mixed success at best.

  2. Is that a newly-minted corporate title: Chief Something-Or-Other?



  3. "He has a large loyal following, perhaps due to not following complicated themes."
    I was not aware Ming's photography had "themes" at all...

  4. Sensible appointment by Hasselblad if their strategy is to appeal to VERY wealthy gear-heads who hate being called gear-heads so convince themselves that they are artists who need the very best billion megapixel monster to realise their vision. I looked at Ming's latest foray into the Malaysian caves to shoot the religious festival and see images high on megapixels and low on soul. An accomplished photojournalist with a film camera and a few rolls of Tri-X pushed to 1600 would've produced technically less perfect photos but conveyed far more of the atmosphere and meaning of the event. Isn't that what photography should be about? I have this vision of an alternative universe where Robert Capa returns to the Magnum office in Paris fresh from the Normandy beaches. The bigwigs there say 'Well Bob, your photos are certainly very atmospheric but how are we supposed to sell ultraprints of these?'