You fervently believe you have a great product or service, and you have managed to attract enough resources to it to get it ready. Now comes the biggest reality check of them all: convincing some customers.
The concept of ‘launching’ things onto the market still holds a lot of currency, and for good reason. If you can make a big splash, you can jumpstart sales and create initial brand awareness. It can also be a vital signal to investors that you are at least on your way to paying them back, and not just frittering away their money on coffee and whiteboard pens.
But you need to be properly prepared. Grenville Main, owner and director of web, research and branding agency DNA, proposes two distinct approaches to launching innovation. Both approaches come down to tapping into the need in the mind of the consumer. If you are extending a category, your launch will say simply and clearly why yours is better than what is already available.
“We get a lot of people coming in with another skincare product, the next beer or more coffee,” he says. “If its an existing category, you then go down the path of ‘does the world really need another one?’ If so, why is your product going to be one of them?”
If, on the other hand, you have created something genuinely new you will need to explain exactly what it is, why it should exist and why the customer needs it. It’s also good to be very clear on how big a stretch for this is for you and your brand. If Red Bull started selling accounting software I’m not sure I would be convinced, whereas it might just get away with punting life insurance.
“If it’s a new market model, a new synthesis of emerging trends, latent needs or new thinking, they need to know what it is,” says Main, “and that is a very different conversation.”
Of course, its newness does give you an instant differentiation point, which is kind of what it is all about.
Warning: launching can lead to crashing
So you reckon you are ready for launch? Here are some of the pitfalls and prat traps.
you mis-time it
With debt threatening to sink you, and the competition coming up fast, there is always the temptation to just fling the thing out there and get some sales. But being premature can lead to stains on your balance sheets in the long run. It’s true that Ready! Fire! Aim! can be sound thinking, but you actually need to be Ready! If it’s going to work, you will have to make changes on the run as the market responds.
“We do get people who come along with the right idea but without the information they need to make it great,” says Main. “That’s okay, because we can work with them on that. But it has to be there and sorted well before launch.”
Jonathan Kirkpatrick, CEO of AUT’s Business Innovation Centre, adds: “Timing is a big issue, but you can’t control the market. You have to understand the market and get over the emotional hurdles and take rejection as the market telling you something that you didn’t know before.”
Then there is the Black Swan theory, which focuses on those rare events—wars, scientific breakthroughs, acts of God— that you can’t foresee but are gamechangers.
you focus on the wrong aspect
You might think that your latest waterproof jacket is ideal for the slopes, so you have an ace winter launch with frozen vodka and some rad snowboarders. Nobody buys it—until a top cyclist decides it is the best invention since the wheel for riding in the rain. Not the end of the world, but still time for a rethink.
you spend all your resources on the launch
The launch is not the end of the marketing or innovation process. If your business plan, personal energy and finance is only just enough to get you staggering over the launch line, it is unlikely to be enough.
Part of the SAS selection course involves long marches where the instructors sit by a truck about 200 metres from the end, in a ‘false finish’. Any candidate who stops for even a moment at that point is binned. Innovation tends to be like that.
Mind the gap
Europe’s 3G mobile phones An important lesson for anybody launching something new is that sometimes the gap between what the technology can do and what the customer actually wants can cost innovation firms a lot of money.
At the end of the 20th century the European Union ordered an auction of licences among member states to companies wishing to run the fledgling 3G system that would revolutionise mobile phone technology.
The big players lined up and duly bid their billions to get one of the limited number of licences up for grabs. They then struggled for years to start making their money back. By 2004 many of these firms were either refusing to provide the services they had paid for, or asking governments for some of their money back.
Although there were various technical and investment hitches, the core problem seems to have been that consumers simply didn’t feel like they needed what the technology was offering them. The big draw was supposed to be taking and sending photos by phone, but back then very few people really felt that was necessary: they were quite happy just phoning or sending texts.
Now of course everybody has caught on, and the money is rolling, but it’s interesting to consider how many firms would have survived having so much cash out on a limb for so long.
“If you are talking about success,” says Main, “you are usually talking about long-term, painful and very expensive success. But it is planned, considered, therefore it’s a success. The biggest mistake many make is putting huge effort into launch, going ‘ta-da!’ and then not knowing what to do the next day. If you have gone with the big bang theory, made too much of just getting in to the market and spent all your cash and energy, then you’re boned. If you have still got a bit of money kept back and some energy left you can start from day two and make your market, engage customers and make a go of it. If not, if you don’t have a plan, you’ll need to reiterate, come up with different ways to make your offer work and try again.”
you drink your own kool-aid
Launching something is deliberately designed to be exciting, so it is very easy to get carried away with your own multimedia ad campaigns without noticing fatal flaws in your product. You then find yourself papering over ever-widening cracks in the brand or business plan.
‘It’s too late to change anything now,’ you say to yourself. ‘We are launching in X weeks.’ You may be right, and that little niggle could be for nothing, but you should listen to it anyway. Keep being critical: not so much that you second-guess yourself, but enough to know if it might not work, and what might need to be different.
The followup: making sales
Even if you have a great launch, sales will always take longer than you think to get going. Once your launch has got people on board the good ship New Product, the best way to keep them there is to treat them right.
This, plus your need to continue to differentiate from the cheap copies your idea will have spawned, means impeccable service.
“If something is new you need to establish it in the minds of the consumer,” says Main. “To do that you need to make it simple and compelling for them, but also set a high benchmark for your service proposition and experience to make it harder for competitors.”
Remember, as it is almost impossible to prevent copies entering the market, the next best thing is to make sure they remain cheap and nasty copies. Even if you feel you have created raw product, service will be at least as important. In the same way, if you have a new service, the quality of the products you use to deliver it will almost always be vital. You might just get away with a less-than-perfect product if your service is good and vice versa, but if both are below par, you are stuffed.
“We want to keep people buying it, or if it has a longer life, to keep using it,” says Main. “We don’t want them to ever be doubtful of our product’s value, or be lured away to our competitors. People think success is just a numbers game: increasingly it isn’t. Consumers ask themselves, ‘How well does this fit my needs? How does this make me feel? Does it align with what I value and is it good value?’ And even, ‘Am I more able to self-determine or be self-sufficient?’”
To answer these questions you identify ‘touchpoints’—all the places where your product or service touches people’s lives—and design the hell out of them so that at least the key ones work beautifully and seamlessly every time. You might have created the best garden rake in the world, but if your online store is clunky and unreliable, nobody is going to buy it.
Once you have got sales rolling, it is all about the upgrades and updates that keep people interested.
“Keep paddling, bailing and repainting the ship as you go along,” says Main.
Two of Main’s favourite launches
Sym3 specialises in automation design using 3D visualisations, including baggage-handling systems for airports.
Its greatest challenge was getting in front of the right people. Once there, its proposition was simple: it had a more useable and powerful product and it was half the price of the competition.
Foot Science makes orthotic foot supports and recently expanded into retail products. It specifically targeted one of its industry’s biggest international conferences. It is now off and running and has a year to gain ground before the competition gets off the back foot.