There was a time when a product launch was about announcing the sale of a physical thing, like a car. Nowadays, a product can equally be a virtual, digital entity like a new app or website. But either way, the importance of a successful product launch cannot be overstated.
When you think about product launches, you may think of Steve Jobs waving around the original iPhone, or even more recent launches like Microsoft's Surface Neo (opens in new tab), or perhaps your mind is drawn to a particularly memorable piece of billboard advertising (opens in new tab). But if your company isn't yet as famous as Apple or Microsoft, and you don't have the capital for a huge print campaign, how do you get anyone's attention in today's ultra-competitive landscape?
Here we look at five recent examples of successful product launches, and pull out the lessons learned, which can be applied to products across the board.
01. Dollar Shave Club
The story of Dollar Shave Club is one every entrepreneur should learn. In the simplest terms, two guys met at a party and chatted about how expensive razor blades were. They set up a website that sold them more cheaply, and five years later it was bought by Unilever for an astonishing $1billion. Yes, that's right. One billion.
The genius of the brand lay largely the simplicity of the idea. And so when it came to the product launch, writer Michael Dubin and director Lucia Aniello created an explainer video (above) that got right to the point, with just the perfect level of cynical humour and straight talk to cut right through to the target market.
Note that the clip isn't entertaining in itself: it would be of little interest, for example, to someone who doesn't use razor blades. But for those who do, it's compelling viewing and a perfect example, seven years on, on how to launch a product via online video.
Lesson learned: Your product launch doesn't have to be a big-budget production. A straight-talking video that makes the right connection with its audience needn't cost much, but can be worth its weight in gold.
02. KPOP Foods
The Dollar Shave Club was developed with venture capital. But you don't necessarily need a big investment to bring a product to market. Using a crowdfunding mechanism like Kickstarter, you can raise the funds in advance to develop and produce it, directly from its intended consumers. (See our post on how to successfully launch a Kickstarter (opens in new tab).)
While that sounds great in theory, though, it can be devilishly difficult in practice. Because even if people hear about your product when it appears on Kickstarter, it can be a leap of faith to expect them to part with money immediately.
One popular tactic, then, is to do a 'soft launch' in advance of the full launch on Kickstarter, to raise awareness and build excitement. That's exactly what two MBA students did when they launched KPOP Foods (opens in new tab), a brand intended to popularise Korean food in the USA.
Their first product was KPOP Sauce, a Korean chilli sauce based on a recipe from Theo Hanmi's grandmother. To build awareness, he and co-founder Mike Kim designed a cute container in the shape of a piglet, and began handing them out to everyone they could. Word quickly spread around campus, and beyond, and a community started to build around KPOP Sauce.
When the Kickstarter went live, the two "dialled for dollars"; drawing on the pre-existing community of fans, as well as family, friends and classmates, to boost the number of pre-commitments, share the project on social media, and grow buzz around the product. This helped them become a top trending Kickstarter project, and they reached their goal of $10,000 in under eight hours (see their Kickstarter page here (opens in new tab)).
Lesson learned: If you're going down the crowdfunding route, don’t wait for the launch to start selling or promoting. The majority of your effort to build awareness and take pre-orders needs to happen well in advance.
03. Nike’s House of Go
Nike is the giant of product promotion. But the sports shoe company truly surpassed itself with its House of Go campaign to launch the Epic React Flyknit running shoe.
For a whole month, the Nike store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago opened a multi-floor pop-up called the House of Go, which included a high-tech treadmill surrounded by three giant screens filled with animated avatars that actually react to movements.
Everyone who visited got to test-drive the new Epic React Flyknit running shoe while using the treadmill. The experience was free, as long as you signed up to the Nike+ program via their app.
The brilliance of this campaign was that it pulled in countless people who would never have considered buying a high-end sneaker. As Sonia Thompson wrote (opens in new tab) for Inc.com, "I've never considered myself a runner, and the likelihood of me going into a store and lacing up a pair of running shoes to 'see how they feel' was pretty close to zero."
But the fun, child-like nature of Nike's pop-up store changed all that. "Not only did the euphoria of the experience get me to try the shoes on," she writes, "but the convincing staff somehow persuaded me to run around the block with the shoes, while wearing a skirt."
Lesson learned: We can't all afford a big budget immersive experience for our customers. But what we can take away from Nike's House of Go is that a launch needn't just target the core market. Think creatively, and seek out ways to pull in an whole new audience for your brand through your product launch.
04. Under Armour
There was once a time when advertising and branding professionals were rigid and conservative about featuring the 'right' kind of models in their promotions. That's all quickly changing now, though. And wisely New York agency Droga5 (opens in new tab) went precisely against the traditional route to debut sportswear brand Under Armour's FW2017 collection (opens in new tab).
For the launch, Droga5 created a series of social media videos, titled Unlike Any, that purposely portray atypical female athletes, capturing exactly what's different about them.
Featuring action from the likes of ballerina Ms Copeland, stuntwoman Jessie Graff, and Zoe Zhang, an actress and Taekwondo Black Belt, the sequences were accompanied not by the pop music you might expect, but poetry by Saul Williams, Aja Monet, Kojey Radical, Dominique Christina and Aristophanes.
Under Armour's Adrienne Lofton said at the time: "Our brand aims to inspire women everywhere to continue making history in their own lives, and this campaign is a reminder that we stand for and with her.” As a result, the #UnlikeAny hashtag went wild on Instagram, and the campaign proved to be one of the most successful product launches of recent years.
Lesson learned: You needn't just talk about qualities of the product itself. Infuse your brand a purpose and ethos from the launch onwards, and you’ll be able to engage hearts as well as heads.
05. Stranger Things Season 2
"Not only powering homes but powering dreams." A clue?!!!Hawkins Power & Light #StrangerThings #StrangerThings2 https://t.co/x2vJtIKcIBOctober 18, 2017
With streaming video exploding all the old certainties, how do you promote a new TV series these days? If the launch of Stranger Things' second season is anything to go by, the answer is: by getting as nerdy as some of its most hardcore fans.
In a cheeky campaign by mysterious billboards appeared around LA and New York advertising 'Hawkins Power & Light'. To anyone unfamiliar with the show, that wouldn't mean a thing, but to fans, it's a shadowy corporation that plays an intimate role in the plot.
The ads featured a phone number, and if you called it you heard a recording (shown in the video above) that gave you clues to what was going to happen in season two.
Why advertise to people who were already going to watch Stranger Things anyway? Because sometimes, by focusing on a small minority of loyal and passionate people, you get them so excited that it causes a ripple effect, drawing in casual viewers and even those unfamiliar with the show altogether.
That was clearly the case here, as fans gradually discovered the campaign and speculated feverishly about what it all meant across networks such as Twitter and Reddit. Combined with more mainstream advertising such a Super Bowl ad and partnerships with brands, such as the comeback of New Coke (opens in new tab), this proved a winning strategy that made Season 2 a huge hit.
Lesson learned: Sometimes with a bit of creativity, you can pull in a broad audience by focusing on in a narrow one. So whether you're launching a new season of a TV show or the latest iteration of a tech device, think about what makes fans passionate about your product, and ways you can stoke that passion. If you get it right, you'll turn them your most successful brand ambassadors.