A picture of change

Although cameras are what Canon started out with, the Japanese multinational corporation has since branched out into a number of other product categories, making a presence in homes and businesses all over the world. Canon Marketing Malaysia president and CEO Andrew Koh, who has racked up more than two decades with the company, talks to Anandhi Gopinath about evolution, embracing change and adapting to new challenges in the midst of the pandemic.

What Colgate is to toothpaste and Panadol is to paracetamol, Canon is to cameras. This kind of brand recognition is most enviable in the fast-paced world of consumer electronics, especially with the kind of competition that exists in this day and age, but Japanese multinational Canon has a clear advantage as a pioneer in this part of the world. In 2015, it had 54.7% of the world’s market share for DSLRs and 18% market share of the mirrorless market in Japan. So, if you’ve used a camera at least once in your life, there’s a good chance it was made by Canon.

As is often the case with global success stories, Canon’s beginnings are relatively humble. In 1933, a small laboratory dedicated to making high-quality cameras was set up in a simple apartment room in the Roppongi area of Tokyo. Back then, all high-quality cameras were European, with the majority coming from Germany. It was in this small room that three young people with a big dream — Goro Yoshida, Saburo Uchida and Takeo Maeda — earnestly began their work to produce a high-quality Japanese camera. Their first prototype was named Kwanon after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, and in 1935, Japan’s first-ever 35mm focal-plane-shutter camera — the Hanza Canon — was born, marking the origins of the brand.

Canon was established in Malaysia in 1987 and went on to register many pivotal firsts for the local tech scene. It launched the first-ever plain paper fax machine and colour copier, bubble jet printer, colour fax machine and the smallest and slimmest DVD camcorder. Outside of the sales and marketing division, its operations included manufacturing divisions: Canon Opto, Canon Electronics, Canon Machinery and Canon Mailcom.

Andrew Koh is president and CEO of Canon Marketing Malaysia, roles he took on in 2016 after almost two decades with the company. Tall and slim with an easy smile, he started his career with the company selling microfilm machines. “I don’t think you would know what that is,” he laughs, as I Google it fervently. A device used in projecting and magnifying images stored in microform to readable proportions, microfilm machines were not used very much by the time the 1990s rolled around. It is something I remember reading about in the crime thrillers I enjoyed but never actually had the chance to use, and we share a laugh about how quickly technology has moved on from then.

Andrew Koh is president and CEO of Canon Marketing Malaysia, roles he took on in 2016 after almost two decades with the company (Photo: Sam Fong/The Edge Malaysia)

Just like how Canon had pivoted in the 1990s as microfilm machines fell out of favour, the company has done so many other times as technology changed and the market moved on to the next thing. By and large, this strategy has never failed the company, even though it did not have the best of luck with the two computers it designed in the 1980s. By looking ahead of the curve and designing products of the future before the demand for them even existed, Canon found its niche with both individual buyers and corporate consumers. From calculators to copier machines and cameras, the brand became ubiquitous with high-quality electronics.

“Cameras are still an important part of our business. But over the years, we have diversified into many other businesses,” says Koh. “Inkjet and laser printers, multifunction devices that we used to call copiers, security cameras — there are so many things we do now. Even when we talk about printers, Canon makes everything from small tabletop ones right up to large format versions. We run the gamut from consumer to commercial. In fact, our multifunction commercial devices can do everything except make coffee,” he quips.

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