PUBLIC RELATIONS: Launching fads

New gadgets succeed as much on their image as their usefulness. Robert Dwek asks three PRs how they would introduce BT’s prototype

New gadgets succeed as much on their image as their usefulness. Robert

Dwek asks three PRs how they would introduce BT’s prototype

Until very recently, people knew what ‘high-tech’ meant - intriguing

innovations enthusiastically promoted by bizarre boffins, usually on

Tomorrow’s World. It was unfamiliar, but unthreatening.

It was diverting, fascinating, exciting - but it was still ‘high-tech’.

And that meant you didn’t hold your breath for it to become an everyday

reality, you knew it would be years before it had any meaningful impact

on your life - if ever.

After all, much of it was gimmicky or downright silly. It didn’t mean

business, it meant show business. But in what must be a micro-nanosecond

of human history, all that has changed.

High-tech is no longer something separate and distinguishable from

everyday life. Indeed, the very phrase high-tech is beginning to seem

stale and old-fashioned. Today’s world is one of breathless change,

where tomorrow’s world is more likely to have a literal rather than a

figurative meaning. Nowhere is this more apparent than in communications


US statisticians have calculated that the total pool of global knowledge

doubled between 1870 and 1950. It doubled again between 1950 and 1970

and doubled once more over the next decade. This rate of 100% growth is

now said to happen every eight- and-a-half years. And much of the

explanation for this staggering statistic boils down to improved

communications technology, allowing ideas to spread at a rate undreamed

of even 50 years ago.

So what does this all mean for the public relations industry? Well, for

one thing, PRs are going to have to get to grips very rapidly with

technological advances. They will have to help their clients develop a

new language that can communicate the immediacy and relevance of today’s

communications technology without turning off the non-technical

consumer. It isn’t an easy process. But the ones who do will have an

enormous advantage over the laggards - and the test of tomorrow’s PR

companies will be how adaptable they are to technology.

Marketing decided to put a few PRs to the test. We came up with a

theoretical product - based on something BT is working on - with the

following features: it is worn on the arm, although for obvious reasons

is larger than a watch; it contains a sophisticated computer, VDU and

generous storage capacity; and it has a fax, e-mail, Internet and

telephone facility. Priced at pounds 1,200, this imaginary product is

scheduled for launch in three months.

Two themes to emerge from these different strategies were the importance

of the ‘early adopter’ market and the overriding need to humanise such a

high-tech, high-spec product. Do you agree?

Ian Grayson account manager at Hill & Knowlton High-tech clients include

3Com, EDS and Motorola

H&K would target ‘affluent young professionals working in finance,

sales, IT and early adopters of new technology’. The campaign would be

designed to generate coverage in quality national newspapers and

business titles, plus key lifestyle magazines.

This would be followed by a series of exclusive events designed to

‘facilitate data capture of quality leads and begin development of a

‘club culture’ for users’.

Grayson has two proposals for the launch, depending on budget. One is a

James Bond theme, held on the set of a Bond movie at Pinewood Studios.

The event would be introduced by ‘Q’ and part of the presentation would

be communicated through the products that the assembled journalists

would have been given to wear.

The second launch idea is a Thunderbirds theme, which would be conducted

on a small island off Spain. It would mean recreating the original set

and using original puppets and voices in the presentation. Journalists

could use the devices to file copy back to their offices and communicate

with each other while on the island.

Post-launch work would include customer events held in London hotels,

using ‘impressive’ AV shows to demonstrate the product’s features and

include footage of the launch event. ‘This would provide a good

opportunity for data capture.’

The feeling of exclusivity would be heightened by targeted direct mail,

Internet or 0800 numbers and invitations to attend on particular


A series of celebrity ‘road tests’ would be arranged - such as Will

Carling, Ian Wright and Rob Andrew - and journalists at titles such as

the Sunday Times, GQ and FHM would be given the product for a month.

Finally, another fashion show idea. Grayson suggests staging an event

themed as Fashion in 2050, where young designers would be briefed to

design clothes for that far-distant year. The only proviso would be that

the clothes must be designed to allow use of the product.

Annabel Abbs, client services director at Firefly Communications

High-tech clients include Compaq, Reuters, Sequent, CRT Group, Colt,

Octel and Siemens

‘Our first stage would be to request a full brief and undertake lots of

research, including a spell of wearing the product. But my gut feel

about approaching the launch without doing this is as follows:

* Strategy - use cult figures, a high-profile launch and careful

positioning to create the ‘most wanted item of the 90s’.

* Target market - the product is so radical that it will need to be

marketed at early adopters in the first instance. This audience will

probably fall into two camps - PC enthusiasts and gizmo lovers. Both

groups are likely to be young and many will be male. Careful selection

of early adopters will ensure the right image for the product and

subsequently make it a success in the mainstream consumer market.

* Positioning - it is crucial the product is painted from the outset as

highly desirable, sexy, cool and hip. To prevent it being seen as an

‘anorak’ gadget, icons of style should be approached and persuaded to

wear the product in public, figures such as Quentin Tarantino, Will

Self, Keanu Reaves, Kate Moss, Damien Hirst, Barry Humphries, Paula

Yates, Marco Pierre White, Julia Carling, the editor of Loaded and so


* Design - to make the product really desirable, someone like Vivienne

Westwood or Jean Paul Gaultier could be commissioned to design the

exterior - the product could then carry their signature, a real stamp of

‘cool’ - and this idea might be extended into a full-blown clothes

competition, sponsored by the product and with the winning outfits also

being worn by the aforementioned style kings and queens.

* The product’s name - it should be catchy and appealing, perhaps ‘Surf

Zone’ or ‘Zipper’. Product demonstrations could be held in trendy night

clubs, cinema foyers and bars, all emphasising the product’s sociable

side: e-mailing friends and making new ones on-line; finding out where

the most happening clubs are; being directly telephoned instead of paged

and so on.

* Gearing - the launch should be heavily geared towards the consumer,

because the trade and PC press will cover it regardless. Competitions to

win the product could be run with selected magazines or TV programmes.

David Millar senior account manager at Text 100

High-tech clients include Microsoft, Rank Xerox, Bull, EDS, Gateway 2000

and Olivetti

Millar and his colleagues came up with the name ‘WEBwatch’ to stress the

product’s Internet facility. He sees it as a ‘portable office’ and maps

out a less fashion-focused campaign.

He would, however, also launch initially to key, influential audiences

and media and, like Abbs, create an aspirational aura that would ‘lay

the groundwork for a future move into the mass-market’.

Millar would also stress the product’s advantage over a pager and would

focus on its size. But he would be wary of promising too much. ‘It is

essential that all claims are realistic and no false promises are made.’

The launch itself would be ambitiously international, in keeping with

the product’s global nature. Individuals from around the world would

e-mail endorsements. This might be a businessman in the departure lounge

at Beijing airport, the technicians who developed the product talking

from their lab, a reporter on the ground in Bosnia, a member of the

English cricket team in Pakistan, a cosmonaut on the MIR space station

and so on.

Post-launch PR would promote the product as the ultimate communications

device, using strong case studies to show it is ‘worth its weight in


Media coverage could be enhanced by showing the product’s benefits

rather than stating them. For example, it could give all paramedics and

GPs on-line access to the National Poisons Register. It would also be ‘a

great way for newspaper correspondents to file their copy’.

A 24-hour support service for all reviewers of the product would be

essential to help them discover its full benefits. And links to - or

partnerships with - other Internet services will be the only way to

demonstrate quickly the value of this facility. For example, joint

promotions with British Midland, Sharelink, the Electronic Telegraph,

CNN or on-line games. Finally, like Abbs, Millar suggests running a


Jonathan Simnett client service director at A Plus Group

High-tech clients include IBM, Novell, Compuserve and Electronic Arts

‘This product can’t afford to be seen as a gimmick,’ states Simnett, who

would think hard about its positioning as a business tool.

‘Business people are used to dealing with high-tech, but more crucially,

they are highly mobile. They already have most of the features in this

product, although in separate technologies.’

But this audience would not be appropriate at launch. ‘They’d probably

have to wait 18 months or so before buying because they would be locked

into other contracts.’ So, once again, the launch would concentrate on

making the product a ‘style essential, a defining cultural icon’. He’d

go for the 14- to 28-year-old, technically literate brigade. The price,

he thinks, wouldn’t be prohibitive: ‘They’d spend that much on a decent


And like Firefly, the A Plus group strategy would target trendy clubs

and pubs, working with, for example, the O Bar and The Edge in London’s

Soho, the Hacienda in Manchester, Cream in Liverpool and with lifestyle

magazines such as i-D, GQ, Arena and Loaded - ‘an article on how well

the product stood up to a hard-living weekend’.

Exquisitely trendy DJs such as Paul Okensold, Jeremy Healey, Pete Tong

and Junior Asquez and club bands such as The Orb and Orbital would be

recruited. Radio 5’s The Big Byte and MTV’s The End and The Pulse would

be targeted.

The pink pound would be sought because ‘that’s a very affluent, stylish

and influential market’.

Joint promotions with computer games manufacturers would also be a good

idea, as would point-of-sale demonstrations at major transport terminals

such as Heathrow and Frankfurt airports.

The product would not be suitable for mass-market targeting for about

two years. ‘The important thing is to get critical mass as early as

possible. History is replete with examples of products that bombed

because they didn’t make the transition from the early adopter phase to

the early majority phase.’

Moreover, he has serious doubts about the viability of such a product

now. ‘At the moment, launching one of these technologies would be

suicide. The market isn’t ready for it.’

* If you would like to learn more about marketing technology to the

domestic consumer, Marketing magazine is running a one-day conference,

called The Electronic Home, in London on May 23. Call 0171 413 4116 for

more information


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