Product Launches: Adding excitement to everyday items

For every debut of a sexy new product, 10 more pedestrian ones struggle to win headlines. Mark Hazlin discovers how to spice up a mundane launch

For every debut of a sexy new product, 10 more pedestrian ones struggle to win headlines. Mark Hazlin discovers how to spice up a mundane launch

Doing dishes is low on anyone's list of enjoyable pursuits. So what could possibly excite a journalist about a mundane product extension for dish-washing tools? Without a doubt, it takes a clever angle to interest a reporter - who's probably on deadline - in something like Brillo's new disposable Scrub 'n' Toss. Like doing dishes, pitching stories about new sponges, germ-fighting light bulbs, or mold-resistant steel can be one of the more tedious jobs in PR. Unless, that is, you can make it interesting.

While PR pros offer any number of strategies and tactics to solve the individual challenges, they tend to agree that the real trick lies not only in finding a unique angle or trend to tie into, but also in the basic tenet of PR 101: packaging the message in the right way for the right audience at the right time.

Of course, it's not in the nature of most PR people to think their clients are dull. Kevin Lamb, assistant VP at Parsippany, NJ-based Coyne PR, which helped launch the Scrub 'n' Toss, says, "We don't believe that any product is boring. When you look at a launch, you can make something as basic as a paper clip [interesting]. You have to dig down creatively and figure out how you can make it visual and how you can make it snap."

Still, many product launches do lack the intrinsic news value of a new Tom Cruise movie or iPod. Tom Woolf, director of San Francisco-based Allison Partners, says, "Car radiators aren't terribly interesting. The only time anyone buys one is when theirs breaks down." To solve that problem, he advised client to repackage existing radiators in a new way to launch them for specific interest groups. "We have to actually manufacture some of our own news," Woolf explains. "We have to be much more creative in finding news that will resonate with the audience."

For instance, the agency started a program to donate a percentage of sales to a charitable organization. The promotion resulted in publicity throughout the Bay Area. It also created new message points and targeted different vertical trade publications, like women's and travel magazines, that hadn't been approached before.

Linda Hamburger, director of media relations for Boca Raton, FL-based Transmedia Group, says simply, "My job is to find out what's newsworthy about this [product] and present that information to the public." She recently faced the challenge of helping introduce O-Zone Lite, a light bulb that kills germs and odors when it's on. "Part of the challenge was I was afraid I'd come off like an infomercial," she jokes. But for Hamburger, success came when the agency recalibrated the target audience. Before hiring Transmedia two months ago, the client had been advertising in smoking and tobacco publications. As soon as she suggested ending the paid spots and, instead, targeting home-oriented, holistic, and pet-owner publications with PR, the client began to see some traction in the media. "It's all how you present it," she says.

For consumer products, Tom Coyne, president of Coyne PR, takes that philosophy another step further. "You have to get it on the shelf, then you have to get it in the cart," he says. "Unfortunately, many companies are so interested in the Today show window appearance that they neglect getting the people stocking and selling the product into the tent."

Among other tactics, he advocates courting trade media, announcing sales and marketing elements to prove support is being put behind a launch, and spending smartly on conference support. For the second part of his strategy, he suggests establishing an emotional tie with a product or casting the product as a hero. "Championing a cause can add the newsworthy element that a basic product launch may lack and create an emotional bond with your consumer, giving them a reason to care."

For the launch of Arrid's Total women's deodorant, his agency created "Arrid Total Women of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow," which included a strategic alliance with The Women's Museum, a national scholarship program for high-school girls, and a collectible trading card series featuring amazing women in American history.

"With a shrinking news hole, it isn't as easy as putting out a press release and doing a couple of desk-side interviews," he says.

But another example he offers, for Mr. and Mrs. T's Bloody Mary Mix, makes clear that if there is one truth in PR, it's that a TV assignment desk short on news will fall all over a 12-ton, 15-foot cocktail including 2,400 gallons of Bloody Mary mix, 600 gallons of vodka, and a 10-foot celery stalk.

"Make it bigger than life," he says. "The visual was too good for the media to pass up, and thus made news from coast to coast."

Kevin Dugan, senior PR consultant at HSR Business to Business in Cincinnati, OH, uses that same strategy in a b-to-b context to hawk mold-resistant steel. In 2001, his client, AK Steel, built an 11,000-square-foot concept home in Simi Valley, CA, that features 175,000 pounds of anti-microbial coated steel.

Dugan says, "We wanted to show people the various ways it could be used," which include heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems; construction; and appliances. The two-year project helped the client find corporate customers and sign manufacturing agreements.

But not every creative effort is going to work like gangbusters right from the start, and it's essential to manage expectations.

Hamburger says her client began to get impatient within a month when he didn't see big enough results. "PR for him was only working from a sales perspective. [But] I teach PR, which is more than just 'What sale have I made today?'" Woolf agrees, adding that it's important to help the client understand that PR is part of a bigger branding effort.

Lamb recommends putting everything on the table from the start. "You have to give them an honest assessment of what they are going to get. Do an audit of competitors to see what [coverage] they're getting. Find out what else has worked. The key is not to over promise."

Technique tips

Do personalize the story and create a protagonist

Do show the product in action and make the story visually appealing for television

Do develop tie-ins with public figures or charitable groups

Don't be run of the mill

Don't neglect trade media, word of mouth, and the internet

Don't promise more than you can deliver

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