Vanilla Products vs. Nouveau Rich.
New, Vanilla Coke. I can see myself, lying in bed. So stoked I can’t sleep. Desperately waiting for dawn. Dying to get down to the supermarket to grab a bottle and rush outside, slurping it down, drenching my shirt as the cool, wonderful liquid washes down my throat and changes my entire life… I don’t think.
You’d reckon with the sort of turnover and market presence the world’s largest consumer product has, that just a tiny bit of that money would be spent on thought. You know, a simple, logical, basic, humble thought like ‘does any body really want this?’ Or do they think so little of their customers they are prepared to just push a product on them with the incredulous statement, ‘Reward your curiosity’. Curious about what? What a bit of vanilla might do to the taste of Coke? MMMM, fascinating. I could spend hours thinking about what it might be like…
No. I lie in bed, instead, thinking about how to launch new products. Products that are not just dumb brand extensions. Then I get up, shave. Shower. Drop the kids at school. I go to my first meeting. “And let’s throw new services in there too”. I hear myself thinking, toying with my notes about this article, as I sit in another meeting with the finance company who wants to be a bank. The debate goes on. What do we call it? ‘It’ you ask? Yes, it. The ‘new’ bank.
Well, if you’re half way to being a marketing professional and you were going to take on a role like that, you’d ask the question ‘what is it you want to stand for?’.
The trouble is, they can’t answer the question. They look at me blankly. The silence is the embarrassed kind, like when you find a nasty stain on your pants front. Then someone pipes up, ‘Well, we’ve promised our distributors we’d have this all tied up by the end of the month, so we need to get on with it.’ Why were they ashamed? Because they knew in their hearts that there was no need for another home loan. There’s millions of them out there.
Which brings me to the key thing about new products. GIVE THEM A REASON TO BE.
The public hate me-toos. And they hate stupid brand extensions, designed only to milk a bit more out of them. The public (and I expect you fall into the category of ‘the public’ in most aspects of your life other than in the marketing of your particular little niche area/industry) expect something new to have been created to fix something. They expect people to have responsibly thought through customer’s needs. And they can’t believe it when idiots just launch products or services that are the same as every other one on the shelf. They say “that’s dumb” and they are absolutely right.
Why launch a new product/service?
It gives you an exciting project. It gives you complete carte-blanche on positioning, pricing, placement, people etc. It gives you a great item on your CV and lots of sleepless nights wondering about the design, the ads, the media buy, the distributor’s loyalty etc.
It gives you several months where everyone in the company can interact with you. It also gives your sales reps plenty to gossip about. Plenty of reason to ring those contacts they felt havn’t wanted to hear from them again. It gives your printers plenty to charge you for. It most probably gives your retailers (sorry, ‘channel partners’) a reason to notice you, and your loyalist customers another reason to buy something from you, just to ‘try it’. It may even give your employer a return on their investment. And the Chairman’s wife something to comment on at the Xmas party.
But to you, that’s nothing. To you, a new product is everything. It’s your golden opportunity. Some of you reading this will be remembered in awe for the decisions you make in 2003. You will be revered for creating a major brand. A product or service that earns millions, if not billions of dollars for your company and its successors literally, potentially, for hundreds of years. Something to be proud of. To be bold about. Something that gives you a sense of true worth. Something to smile about on your death bed.
Please don’t let yourself down. Don’t be scared like the Coke people are, into doing crap just to keep their jobs. It’s a risk, but it’s not that risky. It’s not just only 1:10 succeed. Brands change their ownership, their company structure. Their business name. They do way better than one in ten.
Yes, many fail. But isn’t it better to have a go, than spend your life living in Vanilla land?
How to choose a new product
Ask what is really needed.
I know I harp on about market research while most of my contemporaries are happy to give you advice about what’s in or out or what they’ve done lately, but hey, I think the fundamentals are more important than the icing on the cake. I’ll put it another way. I know you’ll make more money if you get your shit together.
Ask your current customers what it is they want, now. Use your customer registrations if you get them. Try other alternatives, whether that be by focus groups, chatting at a BBQ or going on-line, check your customer complaints, try running a competition for new ideas etc.
Get input from the players
Ask your retailers, agents, distributors, sales team, the receptionist, whom ever may have an impact on the success of the product, what it is they think it needs. Have the critical ones, like the buyer at Woolies, if you happen to be in HVPG, to build the baby with you. Take them the research. Take them the sketches. Discuss pricing and segments etc. They love to be involved. If you listen and act on their comments, they take ownership. They care. They’ll buy a bigger slab when it comes to the launch and they’ll defend you and your in-store real estate if you struggle a bit at the early stages, like all babies do.
Caution: Stay in business
Prioritise possible new products under a likely time-line scenario. Always put resources first into the cash-flow option. The product/service which will show almost instant returns. Millions of company failures have occurred because the person in your position has tried to chase the big winner and ignored immediate income. Putting up with poverty in the pursuit of immortality may seem romantic, but it doesn’t pay the rent. Once you have a winner or two paying the bills, you can get on with the more idealistic ones.
What to do once you’ve chosen the product/service
Develop a prototype and show them options
Get the production department to knock up a prototype and take it back to the market. Go through the whole process again. Do not let your ego get in the way of its success. (On the other hand, sometimes it’s best to do something so completely left-field that only a small percentage will like it. That’s OK if they happen to have the money, may be loyal and there’s enough of them.) If it’s the wrong color, price, shipper configuration, change it. (Ditto for services. Give it a name, a rough brochure, do the distributor research then the consumer research.)
Check the nitty-gritties
Should it come in a six-pack? Can the trucks carry it cost effectively? Will the shipper slide in the warehouse? Will there be insurance problems? Has the labeling met the standards? Go through every tricky detail over a few days then get someone else in the company to do it too. For this task, use the anal person in accounts you hate. That way, they’ll come up with every reason it won’t work six months before you have to answer the same issue at board level.
White Board It
Come up with every possible use, market niche, roll-out scenario you can dream of. Then come up with every possible thing that can go wrong. You could call this a SWOT. Shove this after the business plan.
Cash Flow it
Have fun with XL. What if we could get X for it? Do estimates of your highest expectations, your medium and your most depressing. Take the mid-ground to the board. You’ll be amazed at how a set of numbers gels a board into action, no matter how dubious. Get a ‘development’ budget out of them.
Write a Business Plan
You can’t expect me to go into details, suffice to say if the exec summary runs over a page, the board will go to sleep.
Go back and get a real budget
When it comes to asking for the real budget, get twice what you really think you need.
Brief all the outside consultants
Design, ads, PR, DM they all complain about being at the end of the line when it comes to big projects. Fine. Get ’em all in a room together. Make them all sign a confidentiality agreement. Run through the project. Be open to what they say. Give them the details on the budget on the white board and slice it up according to what they agree on. This can be great fun.
Give it a ‘brand’
Fully brief your ad/design team. Motivate them. Make them sleep with the product if you can. Have them understand its uses, it’s advantages. Have them invent a personality if it hasn’t quite got one. Brief them to create your vision. Ask them to consider a wide range of media. See how they think it might work as a TV ad, say 2 years from now.
Get extraordinary creative
It must reflect the essence of the brand’s reason to be. Knock back the first couple of attempts until you’ve got in your hands something you can’t stop telling people about, it’s that good.
Get a forward order
With whatever the ad/design group gave you, (packaging roughs, TVC’s whatever) go back to your original distributor contacts and ask for a forward order. Do any deal you can to ensure that some channels/retailers are behind the product even before you’ve made any. This will give everybody on your team some confidence. Confidence is vital if you want them to stand behind you when the shit hits the fan. And it always does with a new product.
How to launch it well
It’s almost professional negligence not to do a test market if you can. It’s best if it is run against a control location – say you use Ballarat as the test and Warnambool as the control. This should be undertaken as an exact replication of what’s planned across the country and it does take a few months. But it sure beats spending bigger money and finding out you’ve got the premise wrong.
Seed the Market
If you’ve been a good boy/girl you will have already set up the key distributor buyers. It’s time to use your PR team to drop stories in the press/TV about the need for a solution to this/that terrible problem.
There’s been heaps of articles about how to do an exciting launch in this mag in the past. So I’m hesitant to step on people’s toes. Always try to get an exciting, relevant location. Give it a theme. Invite a few well-chosen celebs, all the distributors and suppliers who’ve been working to build the baby, the TV/radio/press journo’s, and a camera crew to film interviews etc. for the stations who don’t send a camera man/journo. Have as many of your team there as possible. Board members are good. Even try to have a few people there who’ve had the problem your product/service is trying to fix. They make for great interviews.
Chase up all of these people a week before the opening and the morning of it as well. Send cabs to get them if you have to. Most players go for a morning launch so you can get it on the evening news, but it does depend on the target market etc.
Make sure the speeches are very short, the visuals are exciting and benefit oriented, and the food (and booze if it’s after midday) is excellent. Spend your time when you’re not speaking, introducing people to each other. Get your team to do the same.
Then send out quotes, stories, footage etc. to the right journo’s/producers, depending upon the story. And you should get your PR people to chase up all the producers/journos to make sure they’ve got the footage, they are excited about the story etc.
Launch options – the slow burn vs the big splash
Philosophically, there’s two ways to do a launch. You can do the slow burn where you dribble information and product into the market, or you can do a big splash. Big splashes work better to generate immediate interest for obvious reasons, but are a real strain on the cash flow, so you’ll need deeper pockets.
Most smaller companies go for the slow burn (hoping word of mouth will kick-in) because it’s more affordable. It’s also, in practice, riskier. Sadly, slow burn’s often run out of steam as they don’t quite meet sales expectations and the distributors declare the product/service a looser. There’s plenty of other products/services vying for a good location in the supermarket or on the web site.
What to do immediately post launch
Inspire the team
No matter how good or bad the launch went, tell them it was fantastic. Get em excited. Lead from the front. Get em on the phones. Go out to see the bigger clients yourself. Get the orders coming in. Shout out when you get them. Convince every body this is a winner.
Work the team
Have daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly meetings. Make individuals soley responsible for certain aspects. Force them (I use that term intentionally – I don’t care if you do it with promises, guilt, money or threats. Use what works.) to meet call requirements, sales targets. Sniff for politics and stamp it out. Don’t let it be the people component that kills the product/service.
Please do what your agency recommends about dominating a media and being single-minded about the promise etc. (Exactly what you choose will depend on target markets etc.) Give a copy of their prop to the board – just to cover your arse.
Don’t go against gut feel
Have some balls (ovaries?). There’s a lot to be said for ‘If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you’ to quote Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem. Gut feel comes from observations you can’t quite put a finger on. From experiences as a kid. From knowing when another person hasn’t got the faintest.
If any of the great inventors hadn’t heeded their gut feelings, we would never have had their inventions. In all seriousness, would you have encouraged Alexander Graeme Bell to keep fiddling with his ‘telephone’ in the 1800’s? How would it have researched?
What to do a month after launch
Call your distributors with a formal questionnaire, say a fortnight or a month into the launch. Go over every aspect and where they sit. Are you meeting expectations here? There? What do you need to do?
Check your/their expectations against any market indicators as soon as they are available – warehouse sales figures, web site hit rates, PR releases/runs, shadow shops, even an awareness study if you can afford it etc. It’s brilliant if you have warranty cards or some other customer feed-back in place so you can check real buyer demographics against anticipated customer profiles.
Meet with your ad agency/PR people. Go over the launch, what worked well, what didn’t. Whether you’re meeting sales targets. Seriously consider whether a change in strategy/ creative, particularly positioning, may work at this stage. It is almost always the cheapest option. You’ll still have to be running ads, so why not make them as effective as possible?
Depending upon initial customer interest and (if you can afford them) shadow shops, consider how/when to focus on better retailers or spreading the task amongst more, if that’s what you think you need.
Keep the Board Happy
Do a presentation to the board about how things are going. Show them graphs. Notes from phone calls if that’s all you’ve got. Hide nothing from them. Explain your thought process and ask for their input. If you’ve kept them informed/ excited about the project along the way, they’ll be chomping on the bit to find out anything now it’s up and running.
Hit On them
This is also when you may need to ask for more money. Don’t be afraid. It’s better to ask only a month or two into the launch than six months after, when the product has really begun to falter through lack of finance.
Take a holiday
About three months after the launch you’ll be wrung out. This is when a thick book, a warm island and a quiet spouse are invaluable. Spend a week in oblivion, then come back and act like the bastard/bitch you have to be, all over again.
You will not go down in history, or for that matter just break even, unless you work your team /market harder now than anyone has worked them before. A new product or service is a delicate thing. It must be protected and nourished. Supported at all costs. Little tiny weeds in the garden become great big gum trees in time.