On the launch-pad

Despite the risks involved, companies are still prepared to roll out new products. Tighter budgets and technological advances mean that launches aren’t necessarily the slightly formulaic drink-and-canapés parties they used to be, says Helen Do

With their high chance of failure, especially in today’s uncertain economy, product launches are not for the faint-hearted. Although some manufacturers try to play it safe by sticking to brand extensions, many are still prepared to invest in new brands. Last year, several of the UK’s most successful new products were new brands, such as Britvic’s Fruit Shoot and Danone’s Activ, while the majority of Hewlett-Packard’s revenue reportedly comes from products that did not exist a year ago.

However, these are the select few and there is a perception that too many launches flop because they are unimaginative and don’t engage consumers. Paul Narraway, managing director of event and promotions group MDI, says: “New product development fails because the traditional process of sequential decision-making stifles innovation. There are just too many people who can say ‘no’ at every point: nervous middle-managers trying to hang onto their jobs; hostile focus groups, resisting anything new and different; and powerful retailers, taking none of the risk and making it increasingly costly for suppliers to secure listings.”

Ironically, Narraway believes that the lack of product innovation, coupled with budget pressures, forces manufacturers to work harder on launches themselves: “In the past, people threw money behind weak launches and a big budget was regarded as a substitute for good creative work. When there isn’t a lot of cash about, the work has to be smarter.”

Cheap and cheerful

Imagination Gallery manager Katharine Ellis shares Narraway’s sentiments: “Companies are trying to trim launch budgets, but, at the same time they want something that looks different and that will help them stand out from the crowd.”

Ellis believes that even something as simple as the choice of venue can make or break a launch. The Gallery is a purpose built area on top of Imagination’s Central London offices, and it is hired out for launch events. Ellis has worked there for 11 years and believes that clients prefer dealing with a venue-owner from a branding and event background.

For the recent launch of Elizabeth Arden’s fragrance Ardenbeauty, featuring Hollywood actress Catherine Zeta Jones, the entire Gallery was draped in red – the brand colour – and an on-site chef created a red-themed food and drinks menu, garnished with red petals and edible flowers.

TwentyFirstCentury Communications (TwentyFirst) managing director Brian Michael is a firm believer in events that stimulate as many of the senses as possible. He says: “Launches need to be a sensory experience, not death by information overload. Taste, smell and sound – all need to be stimulated. And this can be achieved, whatever the budget.”

TwentyFirst managed the recent relaunch of Malibu and created an event with a “being 18 again” theme. Michael says: “People, and journalists in particular, go to this sort of event all the time. It was really important to give the impression that this was something different.” Rather than the predictable nightclub venue, delegates were driven to a party venue outside London, where they ate kebabs while being entertained by roller-skating dancers. The result was a genuine “feel-good factor” claims Michael.

Like Ellis, Michael believes that clients are waking up to the benefits of spending their scant budgets more wisely. When money was no object, companies were not particularly discriminating about whom they invited to events. Michael reports seeing an increasing number of clients spending at least as much – if not more – per head as before, but on a smaller, more targeted group. He adds that the result of this filtering process is that delegates are of a significantly better calibre and benefit from more personal attention.

Anonymous feedback

New technology is also helping to change the nature of launch events. TwentyFirst uses a product called Involver, which allows individuals to give their feedback anonymously, at large corporate events. Michael claims that this encourages delegates to be more outspoken than they might be in an open forum.

Involver is often used before a launch to test concepts or communications materials. This minimises criticism from opinion-formers after it is too late and makes them feel more engaged in the launch. It has the added advantage that the traditional focus group format – which is limited to a handful of individuals from the target group – can be widened to include people from outside the target, who may nevertheless have valid comments to make. Michael says: “Involver is not a substitute for the launch itself, but it can ensure that everything about the launch is a lot sharper.”

Another new technology that is gaining in popularity is Web conferencing. One of the many companies offering this service is PlaceWare. The company’s Europe, Middle East and Asia marketing manager Mireia Fontbernat is a forceful proponent of the benefits of Web conferencing, particularly when clients need a cost-effective and quick launch. She says: “Launching a product takes a lot of time and money. For a start, there is the internal issue of training your salespeople. It then takes time for them to get out and present it to all your potential clients.”

This “trickle-down” approach also means that companies risk losing control of the message and find it hard to modify things when something changes. With Web conferencing, a potential customer, journalist or analyst attends a virtual product launch by clinking on a URL to view a demonstration.

Fontbernat says: “The beauty of it is that you speak to all your prospects simultaneously and you eliminate a lot of cost and time, for both your own staff and customers, in unnecessary travel.” PlaceWare estimates that the cost per lead of a Web-based launch is less than &£200, compared with a typical face-to-face cost of more than &£3,000.

Technical technology

Fontbernat believes that Web conferencing is ideally suited to presenting complex technical products, particularly where potential users want to try out the product at their own pace. However, she says she has been surprised by some of the sectors that have expressed an interest in the technology.

Pharmaceutical companies, for instance, like Web conferencing because they are under pressure to roll products out very quickly once regulatory approval has been secured. And there have been other benefits too: Novartis found that customers spent longer at Web-based presentations than they did at face-to-face meetings. Fontbernat also claims that a number of packaged goods companies are examining the technology.

One criticism of Web conferencing is that it makes it harder to build relationships with clients. Michael refutes this criticism: “One of the frustrations of a face-to-face event is that, when part of a large group, it can sometimes be hard for people to secure the interview or information they want. Web conferencing can, in some instances, be better for one-to-one communication. For instance, you could set up an interview with someone at a time that suits both parties. Bulletin boards and discussion groups also create a community that can be very involving for people.”

SMS text messaging is another t

echnology that features increasingly in product launches. Narraway feels that it has promise, but that most companies are failing to make best use of it: “At the moment, the technologists, rather than the marketers, are calling the shots. As soon as experienced marketers get to grips with it, and have the confidence to treat it just like any other medium, it will take off. The key issue, as with any marketing communication is to make sure that the content is relevant to the brand and to the market.”

Old-fashioned values

SMS is a quick and cheap solution, something which is more or less bound to ensure its success in the long term. But, in the final analysis, the content is the most important part of any launch, and old-fashioned values such as subtlety are still essential. As Narraway says: “People are so marketingand style-literate nowadays that they can spot a marketing campaign a mile off. The irony is that for many people, the less they feel they are being marketed to, the more likely they are to be interested.”

We have been asked to point out that Julie Warren is senior commercial and marketing manager for Wembley Arena, Conference and Exhibition Centre, not Earl’s Court as stated in last week’s Special Report.

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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here

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