Yet another way to ruin a new product launch

Volume 11 Letter 3

Timberland had a big winner on their hands when they developed a new footwear line targeted at active vacationers and trekkers called TravelGear. Many travelers want to engage in an array of activities on their vacation but the selection of shoes they bring is often inadequate for all their pursuits such as running, hiking, tennis, or walking in the rain. Unfortunately, packing different footwear for each interest consumes a significant amount of valuable suitcase real estate and potentially attracts expensive excess baggage fees. The innovative new footwear called TravelGear allowed outdoor adventurers to travel with only a few pairs of shoes that could serve a host of footwear needs. To accomplish this, the shoes were broken into two components – an outer shell and an inner core. By separating the outer shell from the core travelers could mix and match to satisfy a range of footwear needs from hiking to business meetings to dining out to rainy weather. As a nice bonus the disassembled shoe parts collapsed flat into a suitcase. The idea was so cool that in 2005 BusinessWeek awarded them their Design Innovation Award. Sounds pretty good so far!

As with most launch disasters the trouble began long before the product roll out. The TravelGear line wasn’t actually developed by Timberland but by the Invention Factory, a company separate from the mainstream Timberland businesses. The Invention Factory worked independently from Timberland on this project and failed to develop the communication channels and relationships necessary to support any new product launch. The sales force became so miffed at not being included in the Invention Factory’s developments that they refused to sell TravelGear products.

Communication breakdowns between internal departments can do more to destroy company value than all the competition combined. By refusing to communicate and build project support, internal departments can sabotage each other’s efforts and topple new product expectations as witnessed at Timberland.

What can we learn from Timberland:

  • Build your internal support base early: Research (lots of it) shows that by the end of nine months the life time value of any new product is already determined. To hit the road running, build your internal support base long before the product launches.
  • Engage external opinion leaders while the product is still in development: Opinion leaders and early adopters influence 60% to 80% of all purchases. Engaging this key group early has a double benefit – it builds commitment internally and drives awareness with future customers.
  • Inform rather than mystify: Technical development teams anxious to show off their brilliance often make presentations that mystify rather than inform. This only erodes internal support.

Research in several markets shows that what ultimately determines the success of a new product launch isn’t the product’s attributes but the ability of the company to engage their user community and build awareness of the new product. Groups that work in secret, believing the world will stop in awestruck wonder when they unveil their master piece, are often met with unexpected objections that can derail any hope of success.

With any New Product Launch – Communicate early, communicate often and communicate effectively!

Innovation: The Classic Traps by Rosabeth Moss Kanter HBR Nov 2006

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