This isn’t so much a post about photography as it is about how a technology-driven company can make products that are a marketing and financial disaster if they don’t understand their customer.

Nobody can dispute Nikon’s place as an optical and camera giant. They started out in the 1940s by knocking off Leica rangefinders, created legendary single lens reflex cameras and lenses and ended up going head to head with Canon for the lead among Japanese manufacturers. They have a legion of devoted users. Count me in.

However, Nikon has never been a big winner in the point and shoot market. Coolpix always trailed the Canon point and shoots feature for feature, and with smartphones taking over, Nikon’s non-DSLR market was decimated.

But I digress. The camera above – Nikon Coolpix A – came out 5 years ago. It was an attempt to bring the mid-range DSLR technology into the compact Coolpix form. It had a large DX type sensor and a prime (non-zooming) lens which was better than the consumer “kit lenses” that Nikon sold with its low-end digital single lens reflex cameras. It was compatible with Nikon’s excellent flash technology. It had a solid metal body and a quality look and feel. Its menu system was easy to understand and quite similar to the familiar DSLR way of thinking. It was compact and lightweight. It made great images. It failed.

There are a number of reasons why but in summary it came down to a series of marketing problems caused by the camera:

  • Limited consumer appeal. Most point and shoots have a zoom lens, this one did not. About the only person who would be interested would be someone who had a large DSLR and lenses but wanted a small walking around camera. This is a fairly restricted group to be sure.
  • Overpriced. Initial MSRP for the Coolpix A was about twice what you could get a cheap DSLR and kit lens for – a setup that had a zoom capability. A competitive compact product from Ricoh was priced hundreds of dollars less.
  • Unappealing design. Fujifilm had a competitively priced X100S rangefinder that was a beautiful camera – similar to a classic Leica film model in design. The Coolpix at heart looked like a cheap point and shoot camera.
  • Slicing the salami – Nikon omitted a viewfinder and remote flash command to keep their costs down. Even a cheap Coolpix had the ability to control remote flash units but the Coolpix A – nope. The optional clip-on viewfinder had no connection with the camera and was very expensive. The camera did not offer image stabilization either – something that the cheapest point and shoots have today and a must for low light photography.
  • Lens too wide and not competitive – the lens on the Fuji X100S was faster and had a better focal length for general photography. The Coolpix A did great at landscape photography, but you had to get pretty close for portraits and people. Not every subject likes a photographer in their face.

To be blunt, this looks a bit like Wag the Dog business at work. Here Marketing, we’ve made this great camera, now go flog it.

Initial expert reviews were positive, although it was pointed out that the Coolpix A was overpriced compared to a comparably specified camera, and lacking in the design elements of the Finepix X100S. The Coolpix A was also seen as rather a specialist model, lacking broad photographic appeal.

Within a few months, the price of the Coolpix A was discounted 25-30% (not good from Nikon’s viewpoint.) By the time the camera was discontinued, the major camera stores in the US were selling it for 70% off the initial MSRP. Often they threw in the expensive clip-on viewfinder as a bonus.

No replacement model was announced or probably even planned.

But that’s not the end of the story. In subsequent years the Coolpix A has become a bit of a cult classic. It is difficult to find a used model at the price that the last ones were sold new. Nikon has sold some refurbished Coolpix A cameras in the US – maybe they had new old stock somewhere in their warehouses. If you look on Amazon, you can find expensive Coolpix As which can be imported from Japan. Coolpix A’s principal rivals – the Finepix X100 series and the Ricoh GR series – are still on the market and have been upgraded from their original models. So there is a market out there. It’s much smaller after the perfect storm of smartphone cameras, but it exists.

So would I buy a Coolpix A – maybe at the lowest discounted price. It is built like a tank, is compact and I can’t deny it is engineered for making great images. However I do have a good travel camera with an impressive zoom, and I also own a mid-range Nikon DSLR that would do everything the Coolpix A would do – and more. I would never have considered the Coolpix A at all when it was introduced. And when a Nikon fanboy rejects your product, you have more than just a marketing problem.