No, this isn't a post about college or pro football. Instead, it's about how you kick off a new campaign, startup, or a brand extension in 2009.
The poster child is Starbuck's new VIA, an instant coffee product that comes in convenient little packets that hopes to mimic the taste of the real thing by just adding hot water.
For Starbucks, it's been a tough couple of years. While they were busy selling and marketing food, music, books, and movies, McDonald's, Dunkin Donuts, and Tim Horton's have been launching heat-seeking caffeinated missiles at Starbuck's coffee franchise.
And it has apparently worked. As the economy worsened, Starbucks got tagged with the "$4 coffee" label, while its competitors have successfully marketed the notion that great tasting coffee doesn't have to become a line item on your personal budgetary spreadsheet.
So, in response, here comes VIA, and it's different for Starbucks in several ways. First, it actually works out to be less than a buck for a cup of their coffee, a significant savings if you can get past the instant part. And it's actually coffee, unlike so many unrelated products they've been marketing.
But how do you launch a product like VIA in a way that consumers will notice, and ultimately sample the new product?
Starbucks pulled out many stops on VIA and came up with a multi-tiered approach that may prove to be effective. First, VIA started with a countdown in all the stores in the hope of creating some level of expectation among their customers (cumers).
Then they made sure that they had signage ready to go that reflected the VIA on-the-go lifestyle vibe. And their in-store displays were top-notch and consistent.
Finally, sampling. The VIA taste test ran throughout a 3-day period in early October, in order to get customers to try it, and compare it to brewed coffee. Starbucks produced their own spot, but lots of regular folks took their shot at it, too, and posted their videos on YouTube.
So contrast all of this with the way that we often launch radio stations. Yes, there's usually a countdown, just like for VIA. But too often, all the details are not nailed down or considered. In fact, there's often a philosophy to just get the new station on the air, and then we can course-correct the product in the days and weeks afterwards. In many cases, for example, the music isn't tested until after the station goes on the air.
What type of impact and branding potential gets missed by the lack of a coordinated, strategic campaign? Too often, the sales department falls way behind, tethered to the first couple of ratings books where there is hopefully some signs of growth. And programming ends up scrambling to start hiring DJs, get production up and running, tweak the music, while the website is often an afterthought.
In the marketing-centric, fast-paced consumer world in which we live, there is always an emphasis on "new,' but there is also a need to be great. More and more, we have been trained to be skeptical about new products and trials, whether it's a restaurant opening, a TV pilot, or even an instant coffee product. If it isn't great, together, and compelling out of the box, it is often doomed to failure. But too often, those attributes don't carry over to radio debuts.
The emphasis on creating a great consumer experience is intensifying. If you don't believe me, walk into an Apple store and think about the many ways in which they have created a unique, exciting, and satisfying retail atmosphere. Now contrast that with what it's like at a Best Buy, Wal-Mart, or The Gap.
This is why one of the greatest marketers in the world - Disney - has now turned to Apple for consulting help in re-launching their retail stores. Steve Jobs is reported to be the go-to person on this Disney makeover. Apple has elevated expectations for the in-store experience, and in the process, has sent a message to other brands, as well as consumers about how to do it right.
This VIA launch is a similar reminder for us in radio to rethink the ways in which we not only kick off a new format, but also a new morning show, a new website design, an iPhone app, or anything that we want to have noticed and sampled. We don't know if VIA will turn out to be a success, but it is hard to fault Starbucks' coordinated marketing and retail effort.