The lights dim, dramatic music bursts from the speakers, dry ice envelops the stage... or does it? While ritzy-glitzy events still happen, a product launch these days is just as likely to take place one-on-one over a quiet latte in Starbucks than in front of hundreds of people on a big stage at some swanky venue.
While this may not be due to falling budgets, there is definitely a desire from clients to make their budgets go further. Marketing money can be spent at a big-bang event or a series of smaller launches targeting specific groups of magazines or individual briefings.
'Ad agencies can say their campaign has led to a ten per cent increase in awareness and clients are looking for the same level of justification from us,' says Fiona Jolly, head of consumer at Lexis PR. 'This is having a knock-on effect on the scale of launches.'
But whether to go big and all-encompassing, or in miniature to selected bands of journalists, is a question PROs are now facing more and more, and it doesn't always lend itself to easy answers.
For some product launches, there is no alternative but to think big.
The fashion and car industries require exotic locations and drama. But as well as it depending on the particular product, the target audience and the message the client wants to get across, clients have become more demanding. They recognise that they may gain better results with a more sophisticated approach than a simple press conference. Their PR agency may have to work alongside other agencies and come back with an integrated campaign strategy, for example.
'I do think clients have become more educated about launches over the years,' says Andy West, managing director EMEA at Text 100. 'Part of that is due to budget - to put on a really good launch with catering, and a good venue. It is a big undertaking and all but the largest clients rarely have the budget for that.' According to West, this means that the one-to-many format is waning, as it is far more difficult to control.
Others disagree. For the launch of Urban Digital Vending - nationwide touch-screen kiosks letting the public download music for cash - Mantra PR arranged a massive-scale event for journalists, music supremos and potential high-profile partners such as Coca-Cola. The event was a one-off, but it only got all these guests by generating momentum for the launch through pre-briefings with journalists. That meant an article appeared in The Sunday Times and a few other titles just a few days before the event, creating excitement about the launch.
Sometimes the reasons for going big are more prosaic. The same agency had just a week to arrange the UK launch of Swedish consumer telecom company Tele2 in the UK. Without time for a rumbling campaign targeting key journalists, the best way to get coverage was to create a photo opportunity. A combination of a ten-foot red phone and Ulrika Jonsson (pictured) sparked the interest they needed.
Jolly highlights another reason for choosing a large, open press conference: transparency. 'There are bound to be some tough questions and debate, so it is quite a brave approach,' she concedes. 'But if there's going to be debate, have it up-front.'
But while PROs favour getting all journalists together at once, not all journalists like each other's company. When there are scoops or angles to protect, many prefer private briefings before or after the event.
Briefing across the board
'It is crucial for journalists to have all the information before the main event, says freelance business and technology journalist Stuart Lauchlan.
'This could include a pre-briefing. We need to think about how we are covering it rather than be surprised on the day. When Oracle launched Oracle 8 it only did pre-briefings to dedicated Oracle watchers - I got no useful information out of the official launch itself.'
An increasing trend is to split press events into a number of sector briefings. So for the Apple iPod v2 launch, Bite Communications split the briefings into sectors such as consumer press and business and financial press. Even here though, journalists didn't come out without an incentive.
'If there are group events, these tend to include a small number of journalists, often in a round-table debate format,' says Sheryl Seitz, managing director of Bite's UK consumer arm. 'The carrot dangled in front of them is the chance to speak to a customer or an independent analyst at the event.'
Some journalists or publications will not attend events that they know their competitors will attend. One-on-one briefings provide the ideal opportunity for journalists to feel they are getting exclusive information and a unique angle for their publication.
It also cuts out the need to listen to details that simply aren't relevant to their readership, says Michael Brook, deputy editor of men's gadget magazine Stuff. 'A lot of people are starting to put on events in the evening and have one-on-ones during the day,' he says. 'I used to have to sit through hugely techie questions from other people, but a one-on-one means they can ask their techie questions and I can ask mine.'
This hybrid of a face-to-face session and a big launch seems to fulfil the best of both worlds. But from a cost perspective, true one-on-ones can be time-consuming.
Nevertheless, maintains Jolly, it is unbeatable at getting the right message across to the right publication.
'Given the choice, I would always prefer a one-on-one briefing or a small-scale event,' says Jolly. 'And rather than invite the journalist to a briefing at the office or a central hotel, we like to make the trip to the journalist's office for a desk-side briefing - it's much more personal that way.'
Forging close links is good for both parties. 'Journalists want to cover something no one else has covered,' says Mark Davis, consumer brand consultant at Mantra. 'And they appreciate the importance of a good relationship with an individual PR person.'
Dry ice and laser beams may be dramatic, but if a series of quiet one-on-ones generates more coverage - and ultimately more sales - then the client is going to be happy.
CASE STUDY 1: WANADOO
Product: Relaunch of Freeserve as Wanadoo
Agency: PiranhaKid Communications
Launch date: April 2004
Method of launch: PiranhaKid held 'Wanadoo...Music', a live music event held at London rock venue Scala, for 400 media, music industry and Wanadoo guests. Interviews with some of the stars at the event, such as Kelis and Rachel Stevens, together with branding and launch messaging, were negotiated with The Sun, Daily Mirror, OK!, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, Hello!, CD:UK and MTV. Behind-the-scenes rehearsals and a branded photoshoot were also exploited for further coverage.
CASE STUDY 2: BANG & OLUFSEN
Product: Bang & Olufsen BeoVision 7
Agency: Text 100
Launch date: December 2004
Method of launch: When B&O wanted to launch the BeoVision 7, a 32-inch LCD TV, it first considered a global launch, flying in journalists to its headquarters in the sleepy Denmark backwater of Struer. But working with its PR company Text 100, B&O went for a more tiered approach rather than one massive glitzy event.
Just three UK journalists from the gadget and technology press were flown out to Denmark to be fully immersed in the technology and the B&O experience. Back in London, the company held a separate press day to brief the rest of the relevant UK press.
Yet again, Text and B&O employed a more subtle strategy for getting the company message across. Rather than tackle all sectors at once, Text split the press conference into three groups: consumer and interior press, technology press and the nationals. This meant each group would have information tailored to its market and not have to sit through questions or detail that wasn't relevant. It also managed to arrange for seven of the attending journalists to have one of these extremely costly TVs on loan for their titles.
This staggered strategy paid dividends. The 12 journalists targeted by the firm generated 16 articles in the national press, including The Sunday Times and Sunday Express, as well as gadget and style magazines, such as GQ.