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How to plan the perfect product launch

Last night I attended the launch party of the Stoli COLD pre-mix drink at NZ Fashion Week in Auckland, and it got me thinking about product launches and what makes a good one. 

robert bruce sublime at stoli

Robert Bruce and photographer Adele Kranz

Over the years I've been to dozens of product launches (you'll recall the Hublot watch event I wrote about last month), so I've pretty much seen it all: body painted models, live bands, comedians, celebrity hosts, and of course promo girls to Africa.  So why is it that some events work, but others are a flop?

The launch of Stoli COLD was great, I thought, albeit safe. Stoli (owned by Independent Liquor) created the Stoli Lounge at Fashion Week in the hope that fashionistas and even normal people could try the world’s first Stoli RTD and share/tweet/like/buy it. Last night was the grand unveiling of the product – it was the first place in the world to trial this ready-to-drink Stoli concept – and, as expected, was attended by beautiful people, media, B-C grade celebs and me. 

Thinking back to some of the best product launches I have been to over the years (such as the opening of The Westin hotel, pre-GFC of course) the ones that worked best and were most memorable all followed one recipe. They had a strong theme throughout the event, kept it simple, maintained momentum throughout the night, appeared busy and full, and most importantly surprised and delighted attendees in some unique way that linked strongly to the brand message.

The risk with product launches is that by attempting to please everyone, get the brand message across, and do something ‘never before seen’ it all starts to feel a little forced, a little try-hard. I remember one event (a competing Russian vodka actually, without giving too much away) where it felt like we were in some bizarre amateur theatrics night instead of a party. You could almost see some poor event manager out the back screaming “Cue dancers! Cue fake snow! Cue dramatic music! Cue genuine Russian women!” You get the idea. If you're not careful, your creativity can  overpower the mood of the night and be remembered for the wrong reasons. 

The key is to get your guests integrated seamlessly into the entertainment (instead of being forced to stand and watch, which is awkward for everyone) and encouraged to engage in some way that will hopefully begin a ‘story’ between the guest and brand. Check out this stunt that Kim Crawford did in New York as a great example of surprising guests with something unique and memorable. Guests thought they were coming to a party, but ended up being the models in a fashion shoot – pretty cool stuff.  

Stoli cold launch event auckland

Photo: Norrie Montgomery

Of particular appeal these days is creating interaction with a brand via social media or a website, which hopefully leads to exposure far greater than to just the privileged few who could attend the event. Photographing guests with a branded backdrop (so guests can tag themselves later) is a tried and true way to get your brand going viral, and worked well last night. Everyone loves to be photographed! And having celebrity photographer Norrie Montgomery always guarantees great shots.

Reading through the Stoli COLD press releases (and digging a bit deeper into its website) it turns out the brand actually has a really interesting heritage, and maybe it’s a shame more of that story wasn’t featured at the launch. Stolichnaya was first launched more than 100 years ago in Russia (when the Tsar was still in power), and it's blended with the finest ingredients in Latvia (the most beautiful place on earth, apparently). The vodka was made famous in the 60s and 70s thanks to actors and presidents and it even helped open trade between the East and West. There's a lot of history in the Stoli brand – and of course in Russian culture – and maybe more could have been done to bring this to life (although the angle of understated quality did come across, which I believe is what they wanted). 

For what it's worth, from my experience of product launches and events, these are the basics to ensure your party is a success:

1.     Choose a venue you are sure you can fill:
     a. Nothing looks worse than a partially empty room
     b. Being close to other people helps create intimacy and a buzz in a room, which is a good thing

2.     Ensure your party looks full and busy from the get-go by over-inviting guests:
     a. It is human nature that people will pull out, not attend, or be late.
     b. Invite at least a third more people than you can accommodate:
     c. It always looks good having a queue at the door (though note, not too long or people will start to leave or tweet about how inconvenienced they are)

3.     Get the gender balance right:
     a. Nothing worse than a sausage sizzle!

4.     Celebrity MCs/hosts help give you credibility:
     a. Get someone who matches the values of your brand
     b. Someone who is a great speaker, able to captivate an audience
     c. Don’t script a comedian or natural funny-man: let them use their own material and it will feel far less staged

5.     Have a host:
     a. There should be someone who is the event organiser or host
     b. They should be visible, and work the room
     c. This person controls the proceedings, meets and greets, and makes people feel welcome
     d. They keep momentum going, and ensure the energy in the room is maintained

6.     If you insist on having some ‘formalities’ (a speech of some kind):
     a. Do it early in the night when there is a chance people will still listen
     b. Have your hostesses/staff/helpers hush the room prior to the speaker taking the stage
     c. Ensure the music is off
     d. Keep it short, sharp and punchy
     e. Ensure it is rehearsed and each speaker knows how they sound on the microphone
     f. Stick to the key messages of the brand (why are we here/what you need to know)
     g. Ensure the microphone is loud enough for everyone to hear (or even if you have captured people’s attention, it will be lost very quickly)

7.     Don’t fall for the trap of booking the ‘coolest’ DJ in town:
     a. This can come across as try-hard
     b. Stick with music that people like, is upbeat, appropriate to the audience
     c. Not so loud that people have to shout to be heard, but not so quiet that it becomes ambient.

8.     Have a strong theme:
     a. At each touch point throughout the night, the brand message must come across (from your food right through to the clothing of your hosts)
     b. The food, if possible, should relate to the brand. As should every other element of the bar. Ask yourself, “why have we used this venue? Why have we got this DJ? How do they relate to our brand?”

9.     All sing from the same songsheet:
     a. Everyone should be briefed on the event on the message you are trying to get across, from the caterers, barmen, doormen, and hostesses.

10.  Show people something they have not seen:
     a. You need to do this without it being try-hard.
     b. Good luck with this one! Pay a professional...

So there we have it: some of my tips for running a successful product launch. I thought the Stoli COLD launch was great overall, and everyone had a good Stoli-fuelled time…

If you have any tips on how to make a party rock, or examples of cool product launches you have seen in New Zealand or around the world, be my guest and share them below in the comments.

Robert Bruce is a seasoned entrepreneur, networker, and managing director of premium experiential marketing/brand activation agency SublimeNZ. As a regular attendee (and sometimes host) at corporate functions, cocktail parties and product launches he knows a thing or two about events and what makes a good one. Have an event or launch you want covered? Contact robert@sublimenz.co.nz

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