FOCUS: PRODUCT LAUNCHES: Giving the goods a showy debut. With so many new products at fairs and exhibitions struggling to catch the eye, PR can have an essential role to play. Tara Nealon reports

Companies with products to launch are calling on PR agencies to develop innovative and often wacky ideas to catch the eye of target audiences.

Companies with products to launch are calling on PR agencies to

develop innovative and often wacky ideas to catch the eye of target


But where a product is unveiled is as important as the tactics


A few years ago, launches were rarely seen outside exhibitions and


Today, PR agencies tend to prefer to keep product launches away from

public exhibitions because of the difficulty in ensuring the right

message reaches the right people.

Exhibitions fall under one of three types: public, private and the

travelling exhibition or road show. Public exhibitions are still the

most common, but private exhibitions are growing in popularity.

Conferences, on the other hand, have a big advantage in that they corner

a specific audience, in a controlled environment. Messages can be

communicated in a particular order, according to Lois Jacobs, chief

executive of London-based live communications agency Caribiner.

Jacobs says that big public exhibitions, such as the London Motor Show,

allow audiences ’to experience a brand by immersing themselves in a

product.’ The disadvantage is that exhibitors face a lot of competition.

’At a public exhibition, it is quite hard to control the receipt of a

message to the right audience,’ says Jacobs. ’You get people who are not

in the market to buy, or the people dip in and out of a message.’

Ensuring that a message comes across loud and clear at a busy public

exhibition involves creative thinking. Spectrum, a division of

Caribiner, used the London Motor Show to unveil the latest Astra for

Vauxhall Motors.

It devised a live cabaret, each act delivered a positive message about

the new car. Spectrum estimates the message reached 250,000 members of

the public.

For Charles Barker, the agency which launched the Spice Girls Dolls at

Toy ’97 for Toy Options, the phenomenal interest in the pop group

guaranteed press interest. The challenge was how to create a memorable

photocall at the toy fair, ensuring the dolls received maximum press

coverage before the crucial Christmas buying period. The dolls had not

been allocated a Christmas advertising budget.

Account executive Philippa Loftus says Charles Barker organised two

photocalls at Toy ’97, held last October at London’s Stationer’s Hall.

The first centred around a young girl, dressed in school uniform,

pictured playing with the toys. For the second, the dolls were

photographed performing a mini pop concert on a red velvet stage.

Loftus says: ’There was a scrum of photographers shooting the dolls.

One photographer had the idea to photograph the dolls from behind, with

all the photographers shooting at them. This shot was wired around the


Following the launch, newspaper coverage spanned the Sun, the Daily

Mail, the Express, the Guardian and the FT. TV coverage included London

Today, London Tonight, Channel 5 News, MTV and Meridian Tonight.

Loftus was particularly pleased with the coverage in the FT. ’Part of

our objective was obtain coverage in the ’serious’ press. Following the

launch, share prices for Toy Options, which has recently floated, rose

by over 25p.’

Text 100’s head of Consumer Division Ian Haworth prefers the intimacy of

a private launch, believing that public exhibitions often risk being

crowded and cluttered, with messages competing for audiences. ’At an

exhibition, companies are competing with everyone else in the industry.

In effect, they are giving away plans to the opposition,’ he says.

’The best thing a company can do is to keep their cards close to their

chest and pick their moment away from the exhibition season. That way

they will steal a bit of thunder from the competition.’

Haworth says that if companies have to justify going to an exhibition

because everyone else is, then they should put extra effort into making

their brand stand out. ’Companies have paid a fortune for a stand and

promotional literature, but not a lot of thought is put into attracting

visitors to a stand,’ he says.

To lure key audiences, companies are moving towards private exhibitions,

where a company has control.

Abdul Lateef Jameel, which imports Toyota and Lexus cars to Saudi

Arabia, called upon Caribiner to help develop a private exhibition. The

object was to create a ’Toyota Experience’ in advance of the national

shows in Jeddah and Riyadh.

Three new vehicles were launched at the dollars 2.3 million private

exhibition which was designed using semi-permanent structures in the

middle of the desert. Each location was a 3,600 square metre

air-conditioned structure to accommodate all the Toyota and Lexus

vehicles to be exhibited to the public, together with full support

facilities including power generation and toilets.

Visitors entered the hall experiencing soundtracks and visuals from the

new Toyota TV advertising campaign. They emerged onto an observation

platform overlooking the whole exhibition, which held 24 Toyota models

and a separate lounge area for Lexus models. Banks of monitors ran

information videos on the cars. The exhibitions were a success with more

than 75,000 members of the public visiting the two shows.

Jacobs says exhibitors’ creativity is usually limited to video walls, or

banks of TV screens, which have become rather passe. Celebrities can

drawing visitors to a stand, but this can be a risky ploy, according to

Jacobs. ’They are expensive and the danger is that they could become the

focus, instead of the product launch. Also, the particular product or

company can become devalued by celebrity association.’

If a client wants to use a celebrity, Caribiner will often suggest a

celebrity journalist, such as a presenter, because they will provide an

unbiased view. Ron Mowlam, chief executive of The Celebrity Group says

the quality of PR-led campaigns has improved and celebrities are happier

to be involved in what no longer looks like a ’plug’. ’In an environment

where everyone is launching a new product with a celebrity, the key is

not to go for the obvious celebrity, but to choose a celebrity with a


Last September, Countrywide Porter Novelli (CPN) launched Nissan’s

limited edition car, the Skyline GT-R. The car was available only in

Japan but Nissan was making 100 cars for the UK market. The objective

was to create news and excitement and to target professional males to

reinforce the brand positioning as exciting, fashionable and at the

cutting edge.

The idea was to sponsor up-and-coming designer Ozwald Boateng’s

first-ever UK fashion show during London Fashion Week in September 1997.

Until 1998, London Fashion Week only featured women’swear, so Boateng’s

showing of his collection a day before the shows began attracted over

200 broadcast and print journalists covering his arrival in the car.

While the Skyline launch was undoubtedly costly, product launches can be

cost effective. Jacobs says that while a communications campaign should

be created for an each target audience, the exhibition stand itself can

be re-cycled.

’It simply needs to be adapted for the different audiences. After all,

exhibitions are only part of the whole campaign.’

Themed launches: Food with a creative function

Creating a memorable catered press launch involves more than just

serving the right kind of wine. The wrong impression could have a

disastrous impact on the product an agency is seeking to promote.

’We have all been to many cocktail parties, and none of them was

memorable,’ says Justin Tinne, partner at London-based specialist

caterers and party organisers, By Word of Mouth.

The caterer is noted for its ability to turn a routine press conference

into an extraordinary press launch, through gourmet dishes and themed


’For product launches, we can incorporate the new product into the

presentation of the food or carry it through the theme of the whole

party, according to the client’s requirements,’ says Tinne. Clients

include the FT, Nicole Farhi, Swatch, Hermes, and Bloomsbury Press.

Last October, Bloomsbury Publishing’s publicity manager Suzie Yuan used

the caterer for the launch of Lord Snowdon’s book of photographs, Wild

Fruit, at London’s Chelsea Gardener store.

’They were recommended literally by word of mouth,’ says Yuan. ’We

wanted them to create a party which would promote the theme of the

book.’ Tinne decided to create an autumnal look for the party, using

wild fruits.

The Chelsea Gardener was the ideal site for the launch, as it has a

rustic and outdoor feel, but is protected from the elements.

His team went to the countryside to pick baskets of wild fruits,

including rose hips, wild clematis, hawthorn berries, blackberries,

toadstools, wild mushrooms, sloe berries, oak apples and horse


Armed with this produce, they created arrangements, set within conical

vases which formed a base on which a clear glass plate was set, to be

used as serving trays for the eight dishes.

The food and drinkthen reflected the contents of the book. More than 100

guests attended, including the press and friends of Lord Snowdon.

The event attracted attention well beyond the national newspapers and

trade press. OK! magazine photographed the evening as a social


Tinne says it was more than a grand occasion: ’A catered product launch

must be different because it gets the message across from a PR point of


Bloomsbury considered it a success. Yuan says: ’By word of mouth did a

wonderful job.’

Lego: Building interest before an exhibition

To catch a journalist’s eye at a busy trade fair, new products must have

more than a touch of originality.

Danish toy manufacturer Lego had this in abundance with its new

generation of intelligent construction toys - Lego Mindstorms, the

robotics invention system, and Lego Technic CyberMaster, a realistic

computer game.

The new toys have built-in microchips, which allow children to interact

with their creations via two-way wireless communication.

Lego was due to launch the toys at the Toy and Hobby Fair, held at

London’s Olympia, in January 1998.

Four days before the fair opening, Lego, Danish PR agency Geelmuydel

Kiese, assisted by Countrywide Porter Novelli, planned a global press

launch of the toys. Lego UK’s PR manager Michael Moore says: ’We thought

it was better to do a major news announcement as a ’world first’ in a

controlled environment where we could concentrate on the message.’

The Royal College of Art was chosen for the announcement and more than

158 international publications, television companies and news agencies


Exhibits of the new product were on display with traditional Lego


Children were on hand to remind any adults, if needed, of the toys’

attraction and journalists could gather background information through

computers linked to the Lego website.

The set for the press conference was a video wall display and a


As each new product was announced, a video explained the its operation

using testimonials from children around the world.

Speakers included Lego’s president and CEO Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen and

the Lego professor of learning research, Dr Seymour Papert.

For the Toy and Hobby Fair, at Olympia, Lego asked their design and

communication company Imagination to design a stand that was principally

aimed at the toy trade. ’At the fair it is more about selling the

product rather than selling a story to a journalist,’ says Moore.

Imagination designed a stand which was divided into four different

coloured product zones. A four foot Lego robot, representing

Cybermaster, roamed throughout the exhibition hall leading visitors to

the Lego stand.

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