Anirban Roy Choudhury
Interviews

"One can click pictures on the mobile phone, but for photography, we still need professional cameras": Canon's C Sukumaran

From COVID-induced disruptions to the challenges forced by improved smartphone cameras; What is the road ahead for Canon cameras in India

Globally, camera marketers had a horrible 2020. Market leader Canon sold 55.1 per cent of the number of units it sold in 2019. And, the overall market was just 59.6 per cent of the previous year's (2019). The disruption caused by COVID continues in India and across the world.

With around 50 per cent of the market share in the DSLR camera category and 45 per cent in the overall DILC (digital interchangeable lens camera) market, Canon is the largest player in India. Due to COVID, weddings and the festive season became a low-key affair. Travel was banned for the most part of 2020 and at least half of the 2021. This has impacted the sales of cameras big time, but Canon is upbeat about the future. 

"We are cautious, yet encouraged," says C Sukumaran, director, consumer system products and imaging communication business, Canon India. On the occasion of World Photography Day (August 19), Canon launched 'Behind the Shot' campaign to salute the 'spirit of photography'.

It is not only COVID that the camera marketers across the world are fighting against. Innovations in mobile phones have made their (smartphone) cameras better than ever. But there is a difference between clicking a picture with the mobile phone and photography, says Sukumaran. The campaign highlights the efforts that go behind clicking a good picture. 

In an interview with afaqs!, Sukumaran decodes and dissects the camera market in India, talks about the COVID-induced disruptions and shares his projection for the year ahead.

Edited Excerpts:

What led to 'Behind the Shot' campaign?

We wanted to show the work that goes behind every good picture that one sees, be it on social or news media. To take a good wildlife picture, a photographer has to wait for hours. So, as industry leaders, we felt it's important to show the world the difficulties involved and the commitment level necessary in clicking a good picture.

C Sukumaran
C Sukumaran

What are the segments that drive camera sales in India?

The first set is the professionals, who use the equipment for their business and content creation. Weddings, for example, where the photographers use the camera for their business. Today, wedding is the biggest segment for cameras in the professional category and is also the fastest-growing one.

Then comes fashion, which is a niche, but a very important segment for us. The second-largest for us, after weddings, would be wildlife. Over the last couple of decades, many youngsters, primarily backed by the IT revolution that has happened in India, have started picking up wildlife photography. Media, too, remains a big a one.

Is wedding a new and emerging category for the professional cameras? Earlier, it used to be dominated by video cameras and handycams.

People observed video cameras more in weddings because of their size. The cameras were mounted on the shoulders, so, you had to make space for the cameraperson. It is not a recent phenomenon. Weddings always featured both still as well as video camera. The technology has improved over the years, and the cameras have become compact. One of our ambassadors, who was shooting a large wedding, was asked if he would shoot with a small camera...

"Today, YouTubers or 'Vloggers' are Canon's biggest customer segments, and it is one of the recent segments"

Mobile cameras have also improved by leaps and bounds. Do you fear that you may lose a certain set of your customers…

Has mobile phone impacted our business? The simple answer is, yes. We had point and shoot cameras, and the mobile phones have taken over that space. It's just a concern at the entry-level. But what a mobile phone has done today is that it has made photography more popular. If you pick up or see any mobile phone ad, it will highlight the camera as its key function.

This has prompted consumers to click more and more pictures. And, as they go on in this journey, they start realising that there is a difference between taking pictures and photography. Photography is about detailing. People want more from the gadget. That is where they begin to understand the limitations of mobile phone cameras and move to professional cameras.

"One can click pictures on the mobile phone, but for photography, we still need professional cameras": Canon's C Sukumaran

Any example, or observation on the transition from mobile cameras to DSLRs?

Our entry-level cameras, M50 and 200D, are selling like hotcakes. Now, why is that happening? Simply because of the culture of photography. Another factor that is driving the sales of these models is content creation, which has gone up significantly because of mobile phone penetration.

Today, YouTubers or 'Vloggers' are Canon's biggest customer segments, and it is one of the recent segments. They start with mobile phones and when they realise that the video or audio quality is not up to the mark, they switch. So, that is how mobile phones have helped us. 

"If we get our big fat weddings back that we are used to, with 1,000-1,200 people attending, then the sales of professional cameras are bound to grow"

Where are the customers coming from, do you see an expansion beyond the metros?

The larger pie is still in the metros. But, in the last five years, we have also observed expansion in Tier-II, III and IV areas, mostly in the professional segment. Wedding photography has led to that expansion.

Many youngsters have picked up wedding photography because it helps them earn more money. They pick up contracts over weekends and do their day job during the week. We see this as a growing trend in Tier-II, III and IV areas. As they are quality-cautious, they opt for full-frame cameras and buy professional gear.

Since wedding is such a big category and a 'driver' in smaller towns, how has COVID disrupted it?

With COVID, the weddings have become more intimate. But what we have noticed is that once the government started opening up the economy, the demand for full-frame cameras shot up.

Has COVID also changed the buying patterns? Are people now willing to buy high-value products from e-commerce platforms?

We saw a lot of traction on e-commerce platforms for the entry-level segment (Rs 35,000 to Rs 70,000). But the mid and high-end customers have not switched to e-commerce platforms as they would like to touch and feel the product before making the purchase decision. There is no way people will buy, especially our full-frame cameras, online, as of now.

COVID has forced a lot of disruption in the tourism industry. Travel plans do play a role in making the purchase decision, has that affected your business?

Yes, it has clearly affected us. One set of our customers who were basically travellers took some time to back but now they are going full swing. We have read reports about resorts and hotels being unavailable (as they are fully booked). During COVID-induced lockdown, travel, weddings and professional photography segments were badly hit. But today, all our customer segments have started to invest.

How has COVID changed the way you communicate about your cameras?

Communication was very generic for us... We would say this is photography and this is the model that you should buy. We re-strategised and said that every customer has different needs and, so, we shifted our focus to customer-specific communication.

With COVID, our investment in digital went up by leaps and bounds. We diverted spends from print media, outdoor, BTL... Now that the markets have opened up, we have started investing in all mediums.

"We are aiming for at least 150 per cent growth against 2020"

As you look ahead, what do you think are your biggest challenges in the next three years?

Predictability is very important for us. There are COVID norms, which have made things uncertain. As for weddings, there are a lot of restrictions. For travel, some states say they need double vaccination certificate, while others ask for RT-PCR reports. Certain states have mandatory COVID tests on arrival. These uncertainties are the biggest challenges for the sector today.

If we get our big fat weddings back that we are used to, with 1,000-1,200 people attending, then the sales of professional cameras are bound to grow. Also, we don't know if there will be a third COVID wave and a new set of restrictions. The customer today is like, what if there is a lockdown again, will my investment go in vain?

What is your forecast, in terms of growth, for this year, as compared to calendar year 2020, which was bad?

The traction that we are witnessing today is encouraging. We are aiming for at least 150 per cent growth against 2020. We just hope that there are no more hurdles, as both the holiday and wedding seasons are coming up.