Whether you’re selling an innovative new razor, a new season of a television series or a provocative message for an established sporting goods brand, it’s all about the launch. Making a big splash—the right kind of splash—plays an increasingly critical role for long-term success in consumer markets.
In fact, according to a recent Bain & Company survey of 650 US senior marketing executives, using the right approach to launch a product, feature or campaign allows companies to realize 1.5 times to 2 times higher annual revenue growth rates for a brand. First impressions have always mattered, but consumers today are inundated with branding and advertising messages across more channels. The number of launches rose by an average of 27% per company in 2018, survey respondents reported, with product and service launches seeing even steeper growth; the food and beverage industry alone had more than 55 product launches each day.
In this cluttered environment, marketers must get smarter and more systematic about their launches in order to earn attention and motivate consumers to act. Three-quarters of marketers agreed that a launch’s near-term results serves as a reliable predictor of long-term success.
One big challenge is the compressed time that companies have to succeed with their launch metrics. Launch leaders—defined as the top 15% of respondents who reported financially successful launches, plus market share and revenue growth over the prior year—recognize that they operate in a “make or break” period once the product or campaign goes live (see Figure 1). “You have a finite period to succeed, or customers move on to the bigger, better thing,” the director of digital marketing for a beauty company told us. Channel decisions put a premium on fast launch returns as well. As a food company senior marketer noted, “If you don’t have product moving at launch, you lose distribution. You need to prove yourself early, or you are off of shelves.”
So many launches, so little time
Half of marketers said this “make or break” period has gotten shorter over the past five years, which ups the ante. Given the greater importance of launch success, Bain & Company, in collaboration with Twitter, assessed launch strategy, behaviors and tactics to understand what separates leaders from the rest of the pack. Elite launchers have built distinct capabilities with the following precepts in mind.
Learn before you launch
Marketers make initial assumptions about how many people, and what kinds, will buy or engage. That’s fine, but those assumptions should be pressure tested by mining the reams of data now available about consumers. Identifying and understanding the target audience is merely a prelude to customizing the product and marketing motions that will appeal to that audience. Many prominent launches by otherwise great marketing companies, ranging from Arch Deluxe hamburgers at McDonald’s to Netflix’s Qwikster DVD offering, failed in part because marketers did not design and run user research sessions that take real-life behavior into account.
Launch leaders not only have more advanced data aggregation and analytics tools but also take care to understand the nuances of consumer communities. They are 2.4 times more likely than other companies to use social listening data to refine their launch strategies, message and offerings, our survey shows. As a result, they are 2.3 times more likely to understand the priorities of their target audience (see Figure 2).
Leaders rely more on insights from social listening tools to guide their launch plans
Behavioral differences often matter as much or more than demographic differences when targeting consumer segments. Consider the Subway restaurant chain, which wanted to innovate with menu offerings beyond its mainstay cold Footlong sandwiches and formed an exclusive partnership with lifestyle media company Tastemade to create Tastemade-inspired sandwiches. Tastemade mined the insights from its 300 million monthly engagements with viewers to develop the Green Goddess Tuna Melt, tapping a broad swath of consumer enthusiasm on social media for Green Goddess dressing. Initial response to the launch earlier this year led to incremental traffic while outperforming a concurrent tuna promotion, and prompted consideration for a national offering.
Own your voice
Most marketers aspire to convey an authentic, distinctive voice for their brand as a way to connect emotionally with consumers. “If you’re a diaper brand, just talking about the diapers becomes old. How do you have a point of view about motherhood, family, doing it all?” said the head of marketing for a direct-to-consumer company.
What’s striking is the strength of this approach in defining launch success. Launch leaders are 2.3 times more likely to emphasize evoking an emotional response and 2 times more likely to assert that audiences viewed their messaging as authentic (see Figure 3). That emotional connection helps a company stand out from the background noise.
Evoking emotion through authentic messages
Online lingerie producer and retailer ThirdLove, which emphasizes bra sizes to fit all women, took a stance in a full-page New York Times ad in 2018. In response to public comments about women by a senior executive of Victoria’s Secret, the open letter defined ThirdLove as the “antithesis of Victoria’s Secret,” garnering significant media attention. The letter resulted in more than 356 million unique impressions, with a public relations value estimated in the tens of millions of dollars. ThirdLove saw an almost 10% increase in direct traffic to its website in the three months after the open letter was published when compared with the previous three months.
Having a point of view does not necessarily mean being controversial. For example, Pepsi launched its Lifewtr premium bottled water brand by trumpeting that inspiration and creativity underpin success, rather than focusing on health benefits. Pepsi covered Lifewtr bottles with artwork depicting different artistic and creative themes, including public art, women in art and arts in education. In its first year, the brand generated $200 million in sales.
Getting the message tone just right is essential, however, or else a campaign can backfire. Pepsi experienced this problem in 2017 after it released a long commercial featuring a street protest. A reality TV actor deflates tensions between police and protestors by cracking a can of Pepsi and handing it to an officer. A huge backlash on social media called the ad tone-deaf and offensive, forcing Pepsi to pull the ad.
Go for influence rather than reach
Enduring influence comes not from Instagram celebrities but rather from a small group of passionate consumers who share their opinions and advocacy for a brand or product on digital platforms. Leading marketers and content creators are 1.8 times more likely than others to find sharing-oriented fans through digital attributes such as browsing history and social posts. They are 2.4 times more likely to create shareable content so that fans spread the word, which helps promote an early success (see Figure 4).
Going after the passionate amateurs who spread the word
“If you can get people who really care talking about a launch before it happens, their passion can be more powerful in spreading the word than what you can buy with media,” noted a senior marketing consultant in consumer technology.
Shareability creates and distributes digital content, targeting specific audiences to help spread a brand’s messages quickly across the Internet. During last year’s Hispanic Heritage Month, Shareability worked with a wireless carrier on a campaign celebrating Hispanic cultures. To launch the video, Shareability defined 10 different audience segments that would be likely to share and engage with the content. Within hours of the launch, the company identified the segments that were most connected with the content and avidly sharing. Those segments shared the video more than 25,000 times in 24 hours, which helped to gain meaningful reach and discussion. For example, more than half of the 13,700 total comments came on shares of the video. Over the past three years, the carrier has partnered with Shareability on more than a dozen such campaigns, and as a result, has doubled its online audience and become one of the fastest-growing mobile providers in its region.
Go big on the reveal
Virtually all companies would say they invest heavily in their launches. But launch leaders spend much more of their full launch budget up front, by the end of launch day (see Figure 5). Other companies, by contrast, parcel out more of their budget in week five and later. Moreover, launch leaders are 1.7 times more likely to blitz on three or more channels at once when they introduce a product or brand. On average, blitzers use six channels at once, including the array of digital social media, display ads and paid search, as well as more traditional print, direct mail and public relations campaigns.
Launch leaders spend more heavily up front
Dagne Dover, a direct-to-consumer handbag company, wanted to ensure the fall/winter 2018 collection launch made a big splash for the brand and sales. The team planned a blitz in the New York metro area across multiple channels, including a pop-up store in the SoHo neighborhood, ads throughout the subway system, new website content and collateral, and an increased presence on key social platforms (both organic and paid). Orchestrating all the pieces to hit at the same time paid off as Dagne Dover saw new customer and revenue growth in New York increase by 2 times to 3 times the website average, prompting the team to make expansion plans for this approach to other key markets in upcoming campaigns. Investing in breakthrough launches has contributed to the company becoming one of the fastest-growing accessories brands in the country.
Prepare to pivot
With launch timelines condensed and consumer attention fleeting, marketing organizations must be able to make course corrections quickly. Assuming that all will go according to plan sets up a launch for failure. And with the wealth of digital tracking and analytical tools now available, there’s no need to stick with the plan in the face of contrary evidence.
Launch leaders are 2.9 times more likely to monitor all their platforms during launch and make real-time adjustments to their content and strategy. They most often make adjustments in messaging, followed by channel mix. One reason they can make adjustments on the fly: They are 2.5 times more likely to have the right analytical talent and coordination across marketing silos (see Figure 6).
It takes the right mix of talent to effectively test the data
Amid a constant media din, companies face a high hurdle in launching a new product, product extension, feature or brand. Given the revenue gap between leaders and the rest, marketers need to develop launch capabilities as part of a repeatable plan. That’s what it will take to cut through the noise with smash success.
Laura Beaudin leads Bain & Company’s Marketing Excellence product globally, and she is based in San Francisco. Lauren Foote is a Bain principal with Marketing Excellence, and she is based in New York. Beth Myers is the global product manager for Marketing Excellence, and she is based in Seattle.