product launch
Jim Clark

Jim Clark

B2B Product Marketing Specialist

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The glorious art of getting a product launch wrong

Photo by Nathan Cowley from Pexels

Not all product launches will be a success, that much should be clear to any marketer. I’d go as far to say every product marketer has at least one launch that failed to hit the targets, and probably doesn’t feature too highly on their CV. I know I have.

Anyone that claims otherwise should be treated with a high amount of suspicion. Seriously, unless you’re on an amazing lucky streak or you’ve hit gold with your one and only product launch, then you’ll soon be joining the club.

But what causes a product launch to fail ?  A piece published in the HBR suggests that over 75% of products fail due to various common causes. The reality is that markets are nowhere big enough to consume the forecasted sales of all the launches each year. So you might have the best solution to a tricky problem with a vast potential market, but you’re sharing that space with many others.

The point is when you fail, you’re not alone .

Being one of the 25%

History is littered with product launches that looked great on paper yet flopped, brands that wanted to diversify and then wished they hadn’t, or just crazy ideas that really should never have been allowed out of the meeting they were conceived in – Bic For Her anyone ?

The problem is that when you fail, normally you fail visibly and you fail big. In fact the bigger you are, the bigger you should fail. If Amazon or Apple don’t fail to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, then they haven’t been trying hard enough.

But as consumers, we forget the failures when the next success comes along. And if companies don’t stop failing then they fail full stop.  Why whole companies fail is a topic for another day so let’s just focus on those product flops and try to understand what went wrong, and to learn lessons.

“If Amazon or Apple don’t fail to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, then they haven’t been trying hard enough.”

The Visionaries – Right place, wrong time ?

Every industry has it’s visionaries that disrupt and create new marketing opportunities, far away from the established thinking and consumer behaviour – Dick Morley in the industrial automation market, the mythical Steve Jobs , and my childhood hero Sir Clive Sinclair ( for Jetpac alone).

But for every ZX Spectrum there is a Sinclair C5. And no matter how much Apple dominates the smartphone and tablet world they keep forgetting to mention the Newton, preferring to tell the story of Macintosh. Dick Morley was one of the few with an unblemished record, or a good eye for filtering out the bad ideas at an early stage.

Discarding the wild styling and seated position, Sinclair produced a world first – a rechargeable electric bike, that are now selling like the proverbial hot cakes, especially to folks around my age ! Without the C5 , maybe the Segway would have never come to life ( not that it was a great success in itself), and who knows about the electric bike. A recent report claims that  more than 1 million electrically assisted bikes were sold in 2018 in Germany alone ! Compare this to the 5000 C5s that were sold ( out of 14,000 that were produced) and there is a good chance he was 30 years too early.

So vision isn’t a guarantee of success. Sometimes it’s just a question of timing that is the difference between a major success and a flop.

Are you really sure there is a problem to solve ?

Sometimes the most amazing ideas are answering the wrong problem, or trying to  answer a problem that doesn’t even exist.  We can imagine that every company has been through this cycle when the big boss heard about the Blue Ocean Strategy but didn’t take time to understand the key details.  Or made their annual visit to see one customer (this happens a lot sadly ) and returned with a vision of the future. However you arrive here, not answering to the customer need will only result in failure, even if you are agonizingly close.

For obvious reasons the examples here are often already successful companies who try to extend their brand ,or target new segments without really understanding them.

Back in the late 80s, RJ Reynolds correctly foresaw the downturn in smoking in the US and Europe so created a range of smokeless cigarettes as a way to limit the harmful effects. 350M$ later they ended up with a product that even their CEO was unable to be positive about. Smokers still wanted a product that tasted “normal” , whilst people who were concerned about their health would quit. Differently tasting cigarettes appealed to nobody.

Engaging customers starts with understanding their needs

“Solving the wrong problem, or not engaging your target audience is a guarantee for failure.”

Not to be outdone in the world of social media as a method for collecting huge amounts of data, Google+ was launched. But did the world need another social media tool ? Maybe only to replace MySpace. Either way it flopped after a promising start in user numbers. Observers point to the fact that many people seemed to have signed up accidentally rather than by choice, Google having linked it to many of its existing services. Then analysts at ComScore reported that in January 2012 , Google+ “users”” spent  and average of just 3 minutes on the site, compared to 7.5 hours in the same period on Facebook. Users were just not engaged with Google+.

Solving the wrong problem, or not engaging your target audience is a guarantee for failure, so ensure you really understand your target segment. Starting small and focused gives you a better chance to scale up later. Trying to serve a wide range of segments from day 1 means multiple products or compromised benefits, resulting in inflated development costs and lower customer attraction.

And then there are the crazy ones….

Let’s return again to Bic, the inventor of the ubiquitous cheap disposable pens and razors known throughout the world.  But which marketer decided that their brand should expand into disposable underwear and even perfume ? I’m still struggling to get the concept right in my head, but clearly someone had it all mapped out. Leveraging a brand to create extensions is a perfectly acceptable strategy , but just because you can do something , it doesn’t mean you should.

Take the time to reflect during your development process. And then do it again. And Again.

Validate your ideas with real customers at every stage.

Check that your brand can be stretched into new markets and stay credible. Ask yourself every day, “what is the problem I’m going to solve here?”

What next after a failure ?

Don’t despair despite the time, energy and money invested in the project . It happens, and unless you’ve really made something with no discernible customer value or a solution to a non existent problem then it’s time to take stock and learn from the experience. Was you forecast over optimistic? Did you correctly understand the needs of your target segment ? Were your value propositions clearly communicated ?

(If however you have made a product with no discernible customer value or a solution to a non existent problem then its time to take a really deep look  – my friend and former colleague Damien Herwegh has some good advice for you here)

It’s becoming an overused clich√© but you should aim to fail fast. It’s incredibly difficult to get things right first time, so use the lessons  you learnt to rapidly adjust to succeed fast. If you’re not noticing anything is wrong, chances are you are missing the warning signs.

And thrive in failure, learn from it and of course don’t make the same mistakes again. To misquote Oscar Wilde, “To fail once may be regarded as a misfortune; to fail twice in the same way looks like carelessness.”

Good luck, and enjoy your failure. Here’s your membership card, welcome to the club.

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