Focus: Product Launches - Getting ready for consumer lift off/The majority of new product launches fail but PR can play a vital role in avoiding some of the pitfalls and moulding trade and public perceptions Hilary Freeman reports.

Clive Sinclair’s C5, Coca-Cola’s new formula Coke and RJ Reynold’s smokeless cigarette: the list reads like an epitaph to 20th century marketing mistakes. Few PR or marketing people wish to be reminded of the very public, and often financially disastrous, product launch failures of recent years.

Clive Sinclair’s C5, Coca-Cola’s new formula Coke and RJ Reynold’s

smokeless cigarette: the list reads like an epitaph to 20th century

marketing mistakes. Few PR or marketing people wish to be reminded of

the very public, and often financially disastrous, product launch

failures of recent years.

But those involved in the launch of a new brand should be aware that

failure is the norm, not the exception. New research recently presented

at the American Marketing Association’s New Product Launch conference

shows that only one in five new products succeeds. The number of new

products introduced each year has almost doubled, but 54 per cent of

these will make less than pounds 1 million profit.

While PR agencies are often not chiefly to blame for product launch

failure, their contribution is essential to the public and trade

perceptions of a product. Wendy Mair, a divisional managing director at

Hill and Knowlton, says good PR is critical to the success of a product

launch: ’PR plays a complex role. It can help shape the media

environment before a launch and educate the trade and consumers about a

product so they have a reason to buy. It also contributes third party

endorsement by encouraging celebrities or opinion leader to back a


Companies know they cannot rely on advertising alone. Tony Bilsborough,

media relations manager at Cadbury’s, agrees that PR is essential for

marketing a new product: ’PR plays a very important role in getting

people talking about your product. This is particularly important in the

very early days of a new product launch. Advertising only starts four to

six weeks after the launch in order to boost sales.’

Unsurprisingly, few PR agencies are keen to talk about the product

launch failures in which they have played a part. Launching a successful

product is not an exact science, and involves the co-operation of

several parties - the company which has designed and manufactures the

product, the new product development managers, the marketing department,

the PR and advertising agencies.

Steve Connors, managing director of Quanta, a marketing consultancy

dealing in new product development and brand equity, says products fail

for four main reasons. Firstly, those involved in the launch of a new

product often do not understand the brand’s core values. This, he says,

was the mistake made by Levi Strauss when it first tried to enter the

menswear arena with a new range of smart trousers and jackets: ’They did

not understand that the Levi’s brand value is rugged outdoor casualness.

So the new range wasn’t as successful as it could have been.’

But it is not enough for the brand values to be right, the product

should have some ’real added values’, special features which

differentiate it from other products. ’Everyone involved in the product

launch should ask ’What is it about this product that is new to the

market?’’ says Connors.

The third fatal mistake, according to Connors, is failing to support the

product with trials: ’Products no longer have years to prove


It took tea bags ten years to get off the ground but now retailers only

give products a few months to last. The trade has a lot of power. If a

product has added value, retailers will get behind it.’

The final death knell for a product is a failure to innovate: ’The way

qualitative research is treated is wrong,’ says Connors. ’It should be

used to validate. People go into research too early. Inspiration should

be up-front.’

Even the most experienced PR agencies can make mistakes. In 1996

Countrywide Porter Novelli was involved in the launch of a set of

interactive computer games onto the home CD-ROM market. Nick Hindle,

director of the consumer group says the product failed because market

conditions were not favourable.

’There are not yet many people with CD-ROM capacity at home. 6,000

products were scheduled for release at the beginning of the year. The

marketplace was far too crowded, with all players responsible for

bringing too much new product into the sector.’

With too many similar products on the market, the trade was able to be

more selective about those it wanted to buy. As a result, it placed low

ceilings on the volume of product to which it would commit, making it

impossible for a single one to make an impression.

’When there is negative pressure on the marketing budget, the client has

fewer options,’ says Hindle. ’With limited time and money, PR couldn’t

make a success of the product.’

With hindsight it is easy to analyse why a product launch failed.

Predicting it is not so simple. Foretelling success is equally

difficult. Well-researched, innovative products have been known to fail,

while others have surprised market commentators with their unprecedented


Chris McDermott, director at Shandwick says there are some ingredients

common to all successful product launches: ’The product must have a good

price, unique selling points and stack up well against other products in

the market. The launch must have a news angle, which should be hooked

into the way the factual information is put across.’

He says it is vital the PR agency understands the product’s USP. ’If you

have a PR team which doesn’t understand the USP - sack them.’

Success also depends on co-operation between client, advertising agency

and PR agency. Hindle says integration is the key: ’We work together

best if the client is open-minded, recognises the contribution of each

party and gives everyone a common objective. There should be an open

environment and focused meetings.’

He says many launches suffer because of professional jealousies of the

agencies involved: ’You have to be prepared to keep personal issues

outside so you can contribute to the overall good of a product launch.

We find ourselves as the glue sticking various parts of the programme


Hindle believes there has been a shift in the client/PR agency

relationship: ’PR is working more and more closely with new product

development managers because marketing is now more in control of product


He adds that it is crucial for the PR agency to be involved at the very

beginning of the launch process: ’The level of influence and the

effectiveness of PR is quite often determined by the stage at which it

is admitted to the launch programme. If the PR agency does not take part

in formulating the brief and communications strategy, it can be

delivered a strait jacket brief by the advertising agency which cannot

always be fulfilled through PR.’

Quanta’s Steve Connors says all parties involved in a product launch

should adopt a new marketing paradigm: ’You must think from the

consumer’s point of view. The consumer builds up a picture of a product

from many different sources and contact points. The traditional method

of planning separate budgets for promotion, PR and advertising is wrong.

Instead, when the campaign is being planned, you should think about

everybody involved as a contact point for the same communications



Babe, the story of a talking pig, was the surprise cinema hit of 1996,

taking pounds 20 million at the box office. With a video launch date in

late November and the product’s appeal to a broad range of ages and

socio-economic groups, Countrywide Porter Novelli knew that if the

campaign was handled wisely, clients CIC could have a big hit on their


The launch was a totally integrated marketing campaign. Countrywide

worked in a single team with CIC, advertising agency Focus, sales

promoters IMP and media planners, Optimedia. The main spearhead of the

campaign was to be advertising, with TV, posters and buses proclaiming

the arrival of the video.

During the summer prior to the launch, Countrywide targeted the trade,

selling Babe’s huge potential to the major grocery retailers, high

street video stockists such as Woolworth and WH Smith and the record


With the assurance of a high volume of videos available in the shops,

Countrywide targeted the consumer market. Focusing on Babe’s ’cuddly and

affectionate feel’ Countrywide came up with the idea of a Babe advent

calendar, guaranteeing that the film would be in people’s minds right up

until Christmas Day. It arranged a media tie-in with the Daily Mirror

and its Scottish sister, the Daily Record. For the first four days of

launch week, the papers printed advent calendar tokens, which could be

redeemed for a free calendar at Woolworth stores nationwide - where, of

course, Babe videos were on sale.

The calendar was branded with the Daily Mirror logo and with the logo of

Puffin Books, who were publishing the book of the film and Dick

Kingsley-Smith’s original book Babe the Sheep Pig.

The video of Babe sold over a million copies. In addition to the Mirror

tie-in, it received coverage in 16 national newspapers, 60 regionals and

20 lifestyle magazines and was featured on 50 regional radio stations

and 11 national TV spots. Every one of the 200,000 advent calendars

printed was claimed.

Nick Hindle, director of the consumer group at Countrywide Porter

Novelli claims the launch as an example of an almost flawless campaign:

’It was a great product, and there was realism about the true role of PR

in relation to advertising. The advent calendar was a great idea and we

had a very open, co-operative relationship with the Mirror.

’We covered all areas - trade, consumer, kids and adults and worked

constructively as a single team, adding value to the work of the other

agencies. The PR programme and sales promotion were able to build on the

advertising and plug the gaps.’


The launch of Fuse, a new chocolate snack bar from Cadbury’s, proved

that a media relations-based campaign without high profile stunts could

be hugely successful. It also showed that the sweet tooth is alive and

well in Britain.

Fuse, ’a fusion of milk chocolate, raisins, peanuts, crispy cereal and

fudge pieces’ was launched onto the fiercely competitive snack market on

Tuesday 24 September 1996. Charles Barker’s brief was to create maximum

awareness for the bar from day one.

With no supporting advertising for a month after the launch, the role of

public relations was a particularly important one.

Following extensive product research, press releases were prepared for

various audiences - general consumer editors, business editors and the

regional media. Press releases were strictly embargoed, so that maximum

impact could be achieved on the launch date, dubbed ’Fuseday’.

Charles Barker focused on Cadbury’s strong heritage, the rarity of a

chocolate launch on such a high scale and the pounds 10 million

investment and five years of research behind the launch. Press releases

were also sent to the Breakfast Show disc jockeys of all regional and

national radio stations. Fuse bars were distributed to radio stations to

offer as prizes in on-air competitions. The agency set up BBC television

and radio interviews with Cadbury’s marketing director, Alan Palmer and

spokesman, Tony Bilsborough.

Retailers were informed of the launch in August at a trade press

briefing timed to coincide with the announcement of Cadbury’s

sponsorship of Coronation Street. The trade campaign was extremely

successful. In just one week, a record 40 million Fuse bars were sold

into the trade.

In addition to the media blitz, Charles Barker arranged Fuse sponsorship

of cable television’s Live TV for a whole day - the first time that an

entire television station had been sponsored. It co-ordinated a fleet of

30 Advans to blanket the country on ’Fuseday’ and generated internal

staff interest by visiting Cadbury’s factories around the country.

Within two months of its launch, independent sales figures showed that

Fuse was outselling Mars bars by 25 per cent, knocking the country’s

second best-selling bar off its perch. The release of these sales

figures to the press generated renewed media interest, with full-page

articles in the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror and features on the

Big Breakfast and the BBC’s Working Lunch.

Ross Williams, account director at Charles Barker believes that the

launch was a success because the agency made it a media event.

’We identified interesting media angles, making it into a big business

research investment story - the confectionery launch of the decade,’ he


’For a fee of only pounds 5,000 and a tiny budget we showed that a brand

can be launched using only PR and still achieve a high profile.’

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