The Run-up to Product Launch Should Not Be the Run-up to a Ruined Reputation

Overview: This second article in a series of three focuses on PR for product launches. Upping the ante on the audience’s excitement for a new product is a delicate balancing act. Too much hype and the product risks being a disappointment, ruining brand reputation. This article tries to find the optimal strategy for short-term PR and looks at the metrics for gauging innovation PR effectiveness.

and that’s probably going to be the most important thing that a young emerging disrupting company needs. They may not need mass and frequency, but they do need credibility.
— MSL Group, 2015

For a brand to be strong, the consumer must deem the brand and the message it sends credible. Marketing agencies may succeed in company reach, impressions, and frequency, but it only takes one breach of trust to ruin a reputation.

The first article in this series, “You Need the Steak to Back Up the Public Relations Sizzle – Managing Expectations” explains the process of establishing trust over the long term, and this is a necessary read before contemplating product launch PR. Consumer trust is often destroyed when a company promises one thing but delivers another, because expectations are not met. PR in the run-up to a launch, therefore, must be managed carefully.

Heft but Not Hype

The case of Google Glass illustrates how not to launch a product. Google made the mistake of mismanaging expectations and failing to deliver on promises. With Google Glass, features such as video conferencing and voice text messaging were still in the development stage when the product reached the market. Consumers felt deceived, rightly so, and Google’s credibility sank.

Uber chose a different tact. Although the company has had a series of PR disasters recently, the shared-ride startup nevertheless disrupted the transportation industry. It did this not by making the lofty claim that it would revolutionize public personal transportation but by revealing a compelling product that was tested and ready to go. Users were not disappointed. In fact, they were probably pleasantly surprised. The result: disruption in the taxi industry. Uber’s example implies that innovators need to be sure of the product/market fit before developing and taking it to market.

Amazon’s Fire Phone was a design that first appeared on paper as a mock-up of a press release –  Amazon’s own press release for an ambitious product the company hoped to someday launch. If research was undertaken to discern the product’s value to consumers, it was woefully off target.

At the product launch in June 2014, Bezos proudly showed off the phone’s unique features. It could recognize a jar of Nutella or a painting by Vittore Carpaccio – just what every smartphone user had been looking for. When the Fire Phone hit the shelves, consumers considered it gimmicky and the features worthless and distracting. There was no product/market fit.

 Source: Intrinsic Point, 2016

Source: Intrinsic Point, 2016

A successful product requires two components: product or company fit and strategic short-term messaging that addresses consumers’ pain points.

If long-term PR has done its work, it is easier to ensure product/market fit because customer touchpoints, social media, and big data integrate the needs of the consumer at all stages of innovation from ideation to market.

When it comes to the run-up to product launch, the market will already have perceptions about a brand’s product and its value based on word of mouth, consumer interaction, website content, and communication materials including ads, blog articles, and cold sales emails. If expectations are wrong or the product value is misinterpreted, it will take your sales team much longer to change this perception. Thus, for product launch, if a strong brand image is established along with consumer trust, it is better to downplay a product and have it reinforce consumer trust than it is to overplay it and lose consumer trust.

The lean startup method advocates rapid launches to test product/market fit while other models are firm on delaying any launch until the product is absolutely, unequivocally ready for the market. Which strategy is suitable depends on the product itself, the target market, and the company.

The minimal viable product (MVP) model is different for large companies. A large, well-known company may not want to risk bringing a product to market prematurely because their success innately garners high expectations. A leading tech company that wants to launch a new digital solution needs to do extensive user-testing before widespread launch or any glitches will be fodder for competitors who are eagerly watching innovation development.

On the other hand, a smaller, younger company could leverage a product launch as an opportunity to test consumer response and to initiate a relationship with consumers and external partners. These types of companies have less “skin in the game” at this early stage.

Whatever the strategy, the PR at this stage should be ramped up to fit the moment and the needs of the consumer.


Building Momentum with the Right Message

The brand lens described by Caryn Marooney, Head of Technology Communications for Facebook, can be helpful in developing a message or tag line for a product launch. It helps to put the product into context and find its essence.  

 Source: First Round, 

Source: First Round, 

The message should be crafted well. For example, create a theme or tag line that will attract the attention of the target audience. When Salesforce began, it was more than just a CRM solution. Marc Benioff launched an “End of Software” campaign, which immediately caught the attention of anyone who was concerned with software. Software was causing problems at the time, so this campaign was relevant and timely. Salesforce changed the software industry with an attention-getting tag line.

Press releases are still a large component of PR launches, but there is a right way and a wrong way to craft a press release. It used to be the case that key words and backlinks would improve press release exposure. However, in 2013, Google made changes to search engine optimization webmaster guidelines, which meant that too many backlinks on a release would be subject to penalties by Google, creating the opposite effect.

Press outreach is an effective strategy for building interest leading up to the launch of a product, but calling, emailing, and using social media to reach out to reporters, journalists, and key industry analysts will garner greater coverage than a press release.

Apple’s launch strategy includes controlling every aspect of the message that the public receives. According to 9to5Mac, Apple’s keynote events are carefully orchestrated: “every single element of the presentation is specifically determined in advance, from nuances of the lighting, to how screens are positioned, to who sits where within the venue.” Even accommodating Apple employees are strategically placed in view of the camera, like a political event.

But even before those events, the company leaks strategic information. Senior PR members prepare special white booklets for the communications group during a lengthy meeting held one week prior to the main event. These books detail what will be discussed and announced during the event, who will present each part, and which Apple employees are responsible for what is set in stone. Recorded in painstaking detail are the product hands-on area organization and event attendees. Invites are sent out to VIP guests: certain Apple employees, reporters from Bloomberg News, The New York Times, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, and a small group of favored bloggers.

While not all product launches require such extravagance and attention to detail, the more focus given to the amount of information going out (whether it is too much or too little) and how it is being delivered, the more accurately a product will be understood.

Innovation Diffusion

 Source: Maloney, 2010

Source: Maloney, 2010

The diffusion of innovation and product ignition relies on PR that is based on the product lifecycle. The strategies that fit product launch will not be appropriate or effective just after. This is a matter of consumer psychology to some extent.

For example, people want what others can’t have. When Apple launched the iPhone 7, the matte-black version was curiously undersupplied and, funnily enough, it was the one color that most people wanted. A cunning plan to increase demand, perhaps?

Innovators and early adopters are turned on by scarcity, whereas laggards are more turned on by social proof or by what others are talking about. Therefore, according to Maloney’s 16 percent rule, for rapid diffusion when a product has reached a 16 percent adoption rate, the message should change from one that reflects scarcity to one that is based on social proof – “a one-two punch: lead with PR, follow through with advertising.”

Caryn Marooney, Head of Technology Communications for Facebook advises that the launch is just the beginning when it comes to diffusion; companies need a step two and step three planned out following a launch.

Launching is like the opening move in a chess game. It doesn’t mean that much. You should only launch if you already know what your second move is going to be. This is a journey, and you need to be continuously putting points on the board. To do that, you have to know where you’re going next.
— marooney, n.d

How Good is Your PR? Metrics for Innovation

In both post-product launch and general PR campaigns, PR managers need to demonstrate the outcome of PR programs. But the value of PR is determined by its goals, which are different in every case. Is a company measuring sales, awareness of a new product, long-term reputational capital, or crisis management?

Useful metrics are increases in clicks, users, or sales, but companies are also shifting from revenue-driven strategies to customer value-driven strategies that are reflected in different KPIs, such as loyalty or recurring purchases. KPIs for each PR action should be specific and aimed at measuring the effect that was intended by the action.

Sentiment metrics, such as those provided by Hootsuite, for example, tell a company what their audience is saying about them on social media. Knowing the negatives and positives about a product or a brand in the eyes of the consumer is exactly what a company needs to improve the brand-consumer relationship. PR can either be corrective in the case of poor customer response or it can reinforce the positive.

UCB, a global biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Brussels, is an example of a company that is improving the patient experience using a patient-first approach. UCB’s “patient’s value” strategy involves training the workforce to adopt a mindset in which the patient is the primary concern. The company brings patients into employee training sessions so that employees can understand their needs and “walk in their shoes.” Employees develop a patient-centric mindset with associated products and services.

According to the firm, “we connect globally with patients and their families living with the physical and social burdens of severe disease. These connections give us new perspectives, drive our innovation, and offer hope for a new generation of therapies that will help to transform lives.” At UCB, in conjunction with KPIs that include customer satisfaction and positive patient-employee outcomes, a good portion of PR metrics come from earned media.

The Digital Measure of PR Effectiveness – Earned Media

Earned media, or unsolicited PR, are unavoidable in the digital age. For example, UCB is no more able to stop satisfied patients from posting their positive experiences real time on social media than Uber is able to stop the twitter feeds from disgusted consumers.

But advanced statistics and predictive analytics can put data to good use and assess the value of PR and the impact of a campaign for smarter decisions. A firm can measure, for example, what type of content visitors to the website are interested in, which can provide insights as to what potential customers like and dislike. It also allows for more targeted PR because what does not interest the audience can be nixed to reduce costs.

Ketchum Global Research & Analytics is a PR and branding consultancy group. The firm’s approach is to collect paid, earned, shared, and owned channel data and, based on that, suggest ways for clients to optimize their efforts. In one case, Ketchum linked client communications for a healthcare company to patient volume and stock price.

By charting patient volume against earned media, the relationship between the two became clear: an increase in earned media impressions was met with an increase in patient volume, and a decrease in earned media impressions was met with a decrease in patient volume. Ketchum was also able to identify the PR channels that had the most impact on patient volume.

 Source: Ketchum, 2017

Source: Ketchum, 2017

In some cases, direct business results may not be available or accessible, which makes life difficult for a compliance or marketing chief who needs to show the impact of a PR campaign. According to Ketchum, one option is to buy sales data from syndicated sources or to link PR communications to stock price. Stock prices are a good indicator of consumer sentiment, although this type of analysis is reflective of the short term only.

 Source: Ketchum, 2017

Source: Ketchum, 2017

Effective PR operates through numerous trusted intermediaries to solidify trust, such as industry experts, social media commentary, and journalists. PR is a combination of building relationships outside the firm boundaries, gathering input at all stages of innovation for product/market fit, balancing the amount and content of information communicated to audiences, and managing word of mouth and social media contributions.

But we don’t live in a perfect world …


Up next in Public Relations, The PR Battle Fronts in Digital Times – Breach Management, which provides a guide to proactive PR in times of crisis and discusses how to sustain long-term consumer trust and brand image.