Even without their logos, you may be able to identify them as Polaroid products. They’re all adorned with the company’s rainbow-colored “spectrum” stripe, and have white plastic bodies and big red buttons that connected them to other Polaroid devices well into the 1970s.
It’s just that these Polaroid products aren’t instant cameras. It’s Bluetooth speakers – the first result of a new initiative by the most famous name in instant photography to get people to see it as a brand that’s more than just instant photography.
The range includes four Polaroid players – P1, P2, P3 and P4 – from a nearly pocket-sized $60 version with a snap hook to a hefty $290 model with a boom box-like grip. All support Bluetooth streaming, work with a Polaroid Music smartphone app with five stations of their own, as well as Apple Music integration (Spotify is in the works) and can be used in pairs as a wireless stereo.
It may not be intuitive that the world needs Polaroid speakers or that the company needs to make them. After all, instant photography – once doomed to die in the wake of the digital revolution – is alive and well. Today’s Polaroid is actually a fusion of what’s left of the original Polaroid and The Impossible Project, a startup that saved the Polaroid film from oblivion; it is brought back to life in a way few would have predicted.
However, Polaroid CEO Oskar Smolokowski says the company’s symbiotic relationship with a single decades-old analog technology is also limiting: “It still inspires people and is magical, but it can’t be the only thing we do when.” we want to give Polaroid a future.”
If Polaroid wanted to try something new, music had a certain logic. The company had long played with audio on the fringes: Both the original Polaroid and The Impossible Project tried to find a way to associate a snippet of audio with an instant photo, but both efforts came to nothing. There was even a Polaroid transistor radio that ran on leftover battery juice in empty film packs.
However, the strongest argument for expanding into music is that the Polaroid brand is already associated with creativity, fun and social connections, all of which help explain why people love music. “It’s a space that feels right to us,” says Smolokowski.
Brand stretching, for better or for worse
This won’t be the first time Polaroid has ventured beyond instant photography – which, it’s easy to forget, wasn’t even its original business. The company’s name alone is a clue: it harks back to founder Edwin Land’s breakthroughs in synthetic polarizers years before he turned to photography. Polarized Polaroid sunglasses predate cameras and remain available, although made by a Polaroid other than the instant camera.
Like Polaroid’s current cameras, the speakers evoke its aesthetic without feeling garishly retro.
In recent decades, however, the expansion of the Polaroid brand has usually been a sign of trouble. In the 1980s, when the instant photography business was booming, the company began selling 35mm film and blank videotape. Later, after it ceased producing instant cameras and film, it survived only as a rental zombie brand available for use on . . . Well, seemingly everything from TVs to smartphones to game controllers to yoga mats. And yes, there were a number of previous Polaroid Bluetooth speakers.
Big names from yesteryear always have residual value, which is why you can buy everything from Westinghouse ceiling fans to Bell & Howell bug killers. With its new players, however, Polaroid is trying to do something more sophisticated.
Like the current cameras, the speakers are reminiscent of the well-known Polaroid aesthetic and at the same time appear fresh rather than glaringly retro. They’ve got dials for adjusting volume and selecting favorites, with a satisfying physicality that’s become rare in modern consumer electronics devices. All but the smallest have circular LED displays that show uncompromisingly blocky text and icons.
There are even a few Easter Eggs for Polaroid fans. The red play button is exactly the same size as the company’s camera shutter button, for example, and you can wear the speakers by attaching the same neck strap you would use on a Polaroid camera.
The exuberance of gamers is striking at a time when device design often seems lucky enough to take a backseat. Most competing products are “either black or muted colors,” says Smolokowski. “We just wanted to celebrate a little more – vibrant and bright – so colors are also an important aspect.”
“It’s very Polaroid in a way,” says Chief Design Officer Ignacio Germade. “The Polaroid camera is not something that disappears into space. It has a certain presence. It’s something you put in a room full of people and suddenly it has an effect on the room. It affects people. And when designing the speakers, we wanted to do the same.”
Then there is the smartphone app. With five channels total at the moment, it won’t be anyone’s only music source, but Polaroid sees it as an important part of the package.
“We spent a lot of time thinking, ‘Okay, what’s the kind of music that gives you the emotional response that you get when you look at the Polaroid picture?'” explains Germade. That prompted the company to create human-curated stations with names like Polychrome (“Like a rave in a kaleidoscope”) and Royal Pine (“Uplifting anthems with real roots”) that aren’t strictly programmed by genre or decade. You could hear Santana and Rosalía on the same station, Germade says.
Between the new speakers and the app, the goal is to create an experience that could be a springboard for further exploration of music as a category, although Polaroid doesn’t talk about where it might go. But just in case anyone is wondering if their passion for their most famous business is waning, think again.
“We definitely still take instant photography very seriously,” says Smolokowski, who adds that the company is working on “our first more optically capable camera,” due out next year.
Because even if that Polaroid music thing takes off, what’s certain is that the brand will always think of one thing first: images unfolding before your eyes.