Leica M system: business analysis and virtual communities


This post is written by Cosimo Fanuli, student of Management Engineering at University of Salento, Italy:

Abstract

In virtual communities dedicated to photo enthusiasts, dealing with the Leica M theme always creates antitrust fractions. On the one hand, the detractors of the brand find unjustifiable the expense for this type of instruments. On the other hand, those photographers who consider a Leica M camera a tool suitable for their photographic genre. This study aims to explain how a company can make a profit by having a really narrow market share. By adopting a differentiation policy that is reflected in the uniqueness of technical solutions and high-quality products, creating a strong image of the brand and providing a tool that reflects the needs of customers, Leica Camera AG succeeds in gaining a strong corporate business success.

1. Introduction

In online communities dedicated to photography talk about Leica, and in particular about M system, often creates antithetical factions. On the one hand, there are the staunchest defenders of this historic brand, on the other side there are the detractors who see the "red sticker" only as an expensive photo tool with too many technical deficiencies. In this scenario, threads are created that demonstrate the necessary subjectivity in the evaluation of a photographic tool. However, because of the discussion environment and the subjects involved, the company’s business model is not studied to explain pricing policy and a careful analysis of the interrelations between the tool and the user is not conducted. This raises the need to create that missing link that there is between the community assessments and those that are the foundations of business strategy that enable Leica Camera AG to operate profitably in the photographic industry. In particular, it is important to carry out an analysis of the competitive environment in which the company operates, assessing the technical point of view the products and examine the value proposition offered to customers. To this end, a study on the adoption of this technology by the users must be conducted, the rationale for the selection of this type of camera must be understood and the value that the customer gets from buying it must be analyzed.

2. Business analysis of Leica M System

The M system is accepted as having been the first mirrorless model, since its introduction in 1954 of the Leica M3. As such it has always carved a slice of the market alongside competitors that sell SLR systems. For nearly a decade, some brands have introduced camera bodies without a mirror, so going to undermine the already narrow portion of the mirrorless market. In particular, Dr. Andreas Kaufmann (Leica Chairman) states that Leica market share to 1% of the global camera market, reaching sales of approximately 100,000 cameras every year (in the catalog there are other photographic systems in addition to M System. 1% refers to the entire catalog) [diepresse.com, 26.10.2016 Carsten Hoefer]. From these numbers it is understandable that, in order to have a sustainable competitive advantage, for Leica is impossible to operate at low cost as there is the need to divide the fixed costs of the production on a limited number of products. Thus the brand adopts a strategy of differentiation [Competitive Advantage - Michael E. Porter]. A differentiation strategy is appropriate where the target customer segment is not price-sensitive and customers have very specific needs which are possibly under-served. Differentiation involves making products or services different from and more attractive than those of the competitors.

Figure 1: Porter’s generic strategies

Products will typically involve unique features, functionality, durability, high quality support and also strong brand image. To make a success of a differentiation strategy, organization need:

• good research, development and innovation;
• the ability to deliver high-quality products and services;
• effective sales and marketing, so that the market understands the benefits offered by the differentiated offerings.

By adopting this strategy, the company therefore requires a premium price for their products exceed the costs incurred to differentiate them, so endow them with unique features that have some value for its customers. The risks associated with this strategy may result from the fact that consumers do not recognize the differential factor, as could be observed in many online community users. Using the model of the six principles of the strategic positioning of Porter [Harvard Business Review, March, 2001 - Michael E. Porter] is possible to analyze the business of the company in detail and how it manages market and customers in order to sell products related to the M system:

i. customers of a Leica M product are willing to pay the list price to buy the product. This price allows the company to cover all costs related to the production and placing on the market;
ii. Leica focuses on a limited set of customers by offering a value proposition totally different from that of competitors. In fact, today there is not a camera that has the same characteristics of the M system;
iii. the production is located in Germany in order to guarantee high quality standards. The presence of physical stores in different countries allows to bring the brand image to customers, to perform in a more extensive marketing so as to raise awareness of the products (also with practical field trials);
iiii. Leica M system consists in a few model catalog. Not introducing a lot of models, in particular with lower prices, Leica voluntarily chooses to cut out a part of the market. In fact, a differentiation could open on one side the number of users, but contract sales of the more expensive products;
v. Leica can boast a highly integrated value chain, from design to product realization. This is visible in the many promotional videos of the company and in the attention paid to show the quality of production. An efficient after-sales service allows to create a competitive advantage over those brands that do not have such integration;
vi. the company with the M system adopts a strategy unchanged since the introduction of the first M3, so as to emphasize the uniqueness of the product and reinforce what is the appeal of the brand to customers.

In order to fully understand the strategic positioning of Leica Camera AG, we must study the aspects related to the brand because they have a strong impact on consumers. In fact, developing a good relationship with the tar- get market is essential for brand management. Hislop [An Overview of Branding and Brand Measurement for Online Marketers, 2001 - Hislop M.] defined branding as "the process of creating a relationship or a connection between a company’s product and emotional perception of the customer for the purpose of generating segregation among competition and building loyalty among customers". The process of brand management implemented by Leica has the following components:

  • brand identity: set of expressive elements used by the credentials of a brand to con- vey, corresponds to what the company wants to convey to the market; Leica is an important part of the history of photography and the instrument used by the great masters;
  • brand awareness: activities, generally communicative, that increase brand awareness in the market (workshops and initiatives fall under this component);
  • brand image: how the brand is perceived by customers; It is a highlight for many photography lovers;
  • brand positioning: brand positioning than the competition; with Leica M system is placed in a totally different segment from competitors;
  • brand loyalty: consumer loyalty to a particular brand;
  • brand equity: enhancement of the brand.

The last but not the least factor that allows the M system to be successful on the market is the absence of direct competitors. In fact, there are no other photographic systems that adopt rangefinder focusing. This particular method of focusing is a prerogative of the German brand only. Other brands are bringing innovation to electronic viewfinders or, in the case of Fujifilm, in hybrid viewfinders. The Fujifilm solution thanks to the possibility of framing inside the viewfinder, wide viewing and the use of LCD screens to focus are as close as possible to the rangefinder. However, it is still far from the use of the optical rangefinder.

3. Virtual community and Leica M

Studying the forum discussions, it was possible to evaluate the thoughts and opinions of the Leica M users. In particular, users who participated in the discussions can be divided into two main factions. On the one hand there are those who, by performing strictly technical assessments, consider selling prices too high for the features offered by the product. In particular, they point out that the Leica cameras do not have all those characteristics of modern technology that today are found in the products of competitors. They therefore going to wonder why we should pay so much a product that does not present great innovations. On the other side, there are the users of Leica rangefinder cameras that assess the failure of many technological features in a positive manner. Despite the high purchase costs, they consider this product unique in its kind and perfectly corresponding to their expectations. In particular, they appreciated the rangefinder, the possibility to mount the M lenses and the essentiality of the camera.

The behavioural study is based precisely on the few features that are considered not only essential, but also sufficient for all those photographers who use to shoot the Wetzlar camera. By using the technological acceptance model of Davis [Technology Acceptance Model, 1989 – Davis] it is possible to explain the adoption of this type of camera by the photographers. The model suggests that when users are presented with a new technology (and in this analysis, this refer in the adoption of a camera that is completely different in the use of those that are the traditional SLR or mirrorless), a number of factors influence their decision about how and when they will use it, notably (Figure 2):

  • Perceived usefulness (PU) - the degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would enhance his job performance (photographic performance, in this case study);
  • Perceived ease-of-use (PEOU) - the degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would be free from effort.

Figure 2: TAM: technology acceptance model

The shutter low noise and the discretion of the camera body are two important variables that influence the perceived usefulness. For certain photographic genres these features are essential, so the photographers decide to adopt this camera that allows them to blend in and go unnoticed in the scene the will be photographed. Furthermore, the rangefinder allows a wide view of the scene. The space be- yond the frames allows to understand if something is entering the scene or if there is an opportunity to better compose the shot. The lack of automation and many functions that are unnecessary for certain photographic con- texts play a key role in the perceived ease of use by the photographer. The simplicity of this type of camera for users who purchase a Leica is therefore not a limit, but a wanted feature.

4. Conclusions

The M system represents a milestone in the field of photography, as some of the great masters of photography have taken famous pictures, then become real icons, just with a Leica M camera. This allows the brand to have a strong reputation and appeal. Constructive quality and after-sales service are also a guarantee. In addition, the process of differentiation compared to competitors has allowed the company to create target customers willing to pay for a rangefinder camera, which, on the one hand, does not feature the latest generation found in the technology field, on the other hand represents a tool minimalist style that fully reflects the will of some photographers to use a camera with essential features.

Nowadays there is a very varied offer in the field of photography. However, there is no direct competitor of the M system, as other brands propose solutions that do not reflect the philosophy of the German company. Users then continue to buy M-cameras because using them finds a strong feeling and features that fit their way of photographing.

In virtual communities, it is common practice to guess that the entry into the market of a product with a rangefinder focusing system and essential in its functions could undermine the monopoly of the Leica M system, at a time when the price would be in a lower budget target. A lot of users think that this could cut a slice of both the already affectionate clientele of Leica brand and those who not having the necessary finances for a Leica camera. However, despite this current of thought in social communities, no concrete industrial initiative has been implemented to introduce products that can compete with the M system. This is because, on the one hand, the market share of these devices is so limited that if a competitor wanted to sell products in this category it would be impossible to implement a low-cost sale policy. Indeed, new product, production and marketing costs should be charged on a very small numberof products (based on the reference market). It would also be difficult to compete with such a well-established brand, because it is for some people as a status symbol.

From these considerations of economic origin in the context of global competitiveness, by analyzing the company image, thanks to the high quality of the products and emphasizing the research of some photographers of a simple and essential tool, it is therefore possible to justify and explain as the business model adopted by Leica Camera AG is winning.

©Cosimo Fanuli

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  • Robert Falconer

    “By adopting a differentiation policy that is reflected in the uniqueness of technical solutions…”

    “Uniqueness of technical solutions”. Sounds like urbane language for antediluvian technology. Not beating up on Leica, they definitely have their place, but that wording is much like the cameras themselves: talked up fancyspeak to justify a less than state-of-the-art approach to camera manufacturing in a digital age.

    God bless ‘em, though, it’s working. As this post effectively illustrates, there’s definitely room for a single luxury camera brand in the world that provides more than just quality image output, but also an “experience”, and Leica have evolved to fill that niche admirably with an effective strategy. Nobody does it better, as the song goes.

    • Eric

      It is working, but up to a point. No arguing with Leica’s market differentiation approach and the fact that there are simply no competitors out there in the full frame rangefinder style of cameras. Going for exclusivity in pricing and construction has helped Leica tremendously too. What gets my attention, however, is how the consumer market is changing and what effect will it have on Leica strategy. The amount of camera systems Leica is producing and discontinuing in the process has been relatively high in the last 5-10 years. Moreover, references to the low shutter noise in the Leica M (which I own) have been rendered irrelevant with the advent of silent shooting at 20 frames per second in the newer mirrorless cameras. As far as the reference to innovation in the M System, maybe this was the case with the M9 and M240 migration, but the new M10 cannot be held out as an example of state-of-the-art innovation considering where technology is today in the photo industry. If the 1% market share figure is correct, that would mean that the M’s market share is way below that figure, which while ideal for the company’s bank account, it is an irrelevant market share in the photographic industry. 10 karat diamonds also produce lots of profit and have no competition, but they are also irrelevant to the overall jewelry world out there. Arguably, and despite the well-explained business analysis of market differentiation in the article, Leica’s growing production of “alternate” camera systems and the technology they are pouring into them, is kind of leaving the M system in somewhat of a “legacy” status. I still love my M, but not for a second do I fool myself into thinking that that’s where the photographic industry is headed, or that it is the technology of the future. Like a vintage car, its intrinsic value lies more on its relation to the past, not as a harbinger of an emerging future in photography.

      • Robert Falconer

        Well, at some point the question is begged: You might build the best, most advanced, most beautiful buggy whip in the world…but at the end of the day it’s still a buggy whip in an era of Tesla automobiles. Not a direct comparison, to be sure, but what happens to the Leica M when we get technology like global shutters—and beyond? Leica almost died several years ago at the zenith of digital’s growth, because they’d been unwilling or unable to adapt quickly enough. Will they survive the next major technical breakthrough (actually, will any of the camera makers for that matter, Leica notwithstanding)?

  • FountainHead

    This is a useful report and I think the author supports the arguments well. Good work, this. An interesting companion piece to J Shin’s essay from a few years back about walking away from Leica 🙂

    For this note to receive a wide audience, the text needs copy-editing from a native English speaker.

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