Ready for launch Featured

10:09am EDT September 22, 2006

While innovative ideas may not be hard to come by, transitioning what looks like a good idea on paper to tangible success and increased profits is a whole other story.

Even the largest of companies with limitless advertising budgets sometimes struggle with getting consumers to buy in to their newest concept, product or service.

So what’s the key to a successful launch? While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, there are shared strategies that can turn the tables in your favor.

Ask first
Advertising and public relations firms seem to agree on one thing: You need to get into the mind of the consumer.

That was certainly the case for The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which in 2003 was desperate for a hot product that would reverse the $2 billion in losses it had experienced over the last two years.

“After we introduced Aquatred in the early ‘90s, we had an extended period where we did not bring a successful, broad-market consumer tire to the marketplace,” says Ed Markey, vice president of PR and communications for Goodyear’s North American Tire business. “We had no new products in the pipeline and really needed something.”

But rather than developing the company’s own fancy brand of tire that executives thought consumers would like, they instead took the time to ask them.

“In other words, we went to consumers first, and we did extensive consumer research,” says Markey. “We tried to find out what was missing. What did consumers want in a new tire? What kind of features were they looking for? What their expectations were. What wasn’t available that they wanted and needed and would be willing to pay for?”

Although it sounds like an obvious approach, it’s one that’s too often ignored — even by companies with tremendous household brand recognition, says Keith Busch, vice president of client services/business development at Hitchcock Fleming & Associates Inc., the Akron-based advertising/marketing firm that worked with Goodyear to help launch a new product.

“This was one of their first attempts to do this from a consumer perspective,” says Busch. “They went out and got the wants and needs of the consumer and then made tires to go after those wants and needs. ... You have to know who you’re targeting, because you can’t be all things to everybody.”

With the information gathered from consumers, Goodyear went on to design a line of tires that would meet the two major requests of consumers: tires that could offer confidence in any weather condition, and a more comfortable ride. In February 2004, the company launched its Assurance line, featuring the TripleTred and ComforTred tire. They quickly became the best-selling new products in the more than 100-year history of the company.

And by thinking like a consumer products or marketing company instead of a manufacturing company, Goodyear was able to reverse its slump, posting annual sales of $19.7 billion last year - up from $15.1 billion in 2003 - with a net income of $228 million.

Sending a message
Your product won’t sell well if you can’t articulate its value. So the second component to a successful launch is all about communication. This is no earth-shattering secret, but what often gets missed is communication with employees.

“When you’re connecting with customers, it’s critical to recognize that that’s only one piece of the puzzle,” says Chas Withers, senior managing director at Cleveland’s Dix & Eaton Inc., a public and investor relations specialty firm. “Connecting with your customer base has a direct impact and is influenced by the connection that you already have with your associates.”

If you’re going to educate your customers on why they should buy your product or service, you have to first educate your work force and the people handling your product.

“If you don’t go through a formal exercise to really do that, you take 100 different people within any organization, and they’re all going to have a different view of what a product does or what strengths the company has,” says Withers, who had to apply this ideal when one its clients, Lubrizol, wanted to have clearer messaging around what the company’s true value proposition was.

“If your associates are engaged and they understand the value of a product and what it’s going to deliver, how it has been priced and how customers should view the true value proposition of that product, if your associates get that first and foremost, it’s going to translate best to your customers,” says Withers. “And it creates a bond with the customer as opposed to just a transactional relationship.”

The process often has a chain reaction effect. Informed employees lead to more sales, which leads to increased valuation of the company by outsiders, such as the trade media and Wall Street.

The same phenomenon was also observed at Goodyear. During the launch of its Assurance line, the company held “ride and drive” events for dealers in more than 40 cities so that they could see for themselves how well the product worked.

Goodyear recognized that dealers are a vital point of customer influence and trained close to 10,000 Goodyear sales associates on how to speak about the products, what benefits to talk about and how they compared to the competition through on-site seminars, e-learning programs and self-guided booklets, as well as the ride and drive events.

“If I were doing PR for Apple, I could send you an iPod ... and you could figure out the technology pretty easily, and within an hour, you’ll have 100 songs loaded on it and you can see how it works,” says Markey. “I can’t do that with a tire. So you do rely on the people who are selling the tire.”

And when the time comes for dealers to recommend a tire, they’ll be more likely to suggest Goodyear because of their first-hand experience and knowledge, says Markey. In fact, the company’s data show that in 2004, outlets with trained sales associates sold, on average, 80 more Assurance tires per month than outlets with nontrained salespeople.

To be successful, companies must also make sure their message is in a language that consumers speak. That often means taking highly technical information and making it relatable to the everyday person.

Markey refers to this as “kitchen logic.”

“We tried to tell a story of how the product was easy to understand and how the value that it delivered was easy to grasp,” says Markey. “When we chose a name like Assurance, the name said something. Further, when we chose the name of the technology —TripleTred or ComforTred — it was easy to grasp. If you’re standing in your kitchen talking to a spouse or a friend about the tire you can say, ‘TripleTred — it’s got three tread patterns, [drives well in] any condition. ComforTred. I get it. It’s comfortable, more comforting ride.’”

Avoiding pitfalls
Sometimes it’s not what you do but what you don’t do that makes the difference.

And one thing you shouldn’t skimp on is doing your homework upfront.

Take the example of one of Kathy Obert’s clients, who set out to develop a new vacuum cleaner without doing any research or testing.

“They had done no market research whatsoever,” says Obert, chairman and CEO of Edward Howard & Co. “Then they came to us and said, ‘Well, how are we going to launch it?’ Their challenge wasn’t the consumer. Their challenge was getting Home Depot and Lowe’s to put it on the shelf because there was a perception that you really didn’t need a different one.

“So we said, ‘Well, you need to prove that the consumer will buy the thing.’”

Obert and the company had to go back and do the research to demonstrate to retailers why they should carry the product, even though the company had already built the molds and started to manufacture the new vacuum.

Research backed up the contention that consumers would buy the product, but the story could have had a much worse ending.

“Sometimes somebody wants to cut costs and cut corners and cut time, and they won’t do that research up front,” Obert says. “It can really hurt you in the end.”

Once the research is done, sometimes the obstacle lies in finding a way to make your product relevant and newsworthy enough to gain mainstream media coverage.

Several years ago, Obert worked Kidde, which makes smoke alarms, fire extinguishers and carbon monoxide detectors.

“They’re important products, they save people’s lives, but they’re also not something that would typically pique your interest,” says Obert. “One of the challenges for a company like that with a new product launch is how do they make it relevant, how do they make it interesting, how do they get people to care about protecting their families?”

Obert found a way to tie Kidde’s carbon monoxide detector in with the start of fall. Because people begin closing their windows in fall and turn on the furnace, there is a greater chance of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Obert created a campaign called “Smells of the Season,” which targeted TV news stations - meteorologists in particular - with scratch-and-sniff cards of fall scents. But the last card, which was colorless and odorless, represented carbon monoxide.

“A lot of the meteorologist used the idea of, ‘Remember, this is the time of year when you need to be thinking about carbon monoxide and safety in your home,’” says Obert. “It was a case where they never would have been able to buy with advertising dollars the amount of coverage that they could get.

“It was relevant. It was newsworthy. It was tied to a timing that the meteorologists would have an interest in.”

HOW TO REACH: The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., www.goodyear.com; Hitchcock Fleming & Associates, www.hitchcockfleming.com; Dix & Eaton Inc., www.dix-eaton.com; Edward Howard & Co., www.edwardhoward.com