Put PR in the Product Development Driver’s Seat

by mike freeman on 23 September 2016

In my experience, most people pigeonhole PR. It’s a press release. It’s a tool for launching new products. Occasionally, an issue or crisis might rear its ugly head, and the PR people are called in. PR is basically an after-the-fact kind of thing.

Thinking about PR before you have a problem–or a product–may seem like putting the cart before the horse. But take new product introductions, and ask yourself this: how did that shiny new gizmo that you’re about to unveil come to be?

Someone offered an inventive concept. Someone said, “yeah—great idea.” Someone engineered the thing. Someone may have done some customer interviews, then OK’d and budgeted for product development. Now, a year and a half and later, with hundreds of thousands of dollars invested, you’re ready to drag the gizmo out on its skinny string and see if it flies! Just one problem: what if the market reacts with a yawn?

Looking back, it’s easy to see that a whole stream of decisions were made without much market input. I’ve worked on new product launches with dozens of small and mid-size companies who find this process flawed but, without a huge research budget, also unavoidable.

So what does this all have to do with PR? Well, one of PR’s functions can be gathering market intelligence prior to product development. Here’s an example.

We used to do traditional new product publicity for a natural beef company. The combination of a great brand story and products that played into consumer trends such as healthy eating and responsible farming got us in the door with food editors on a regular basis. And what you could learn from those 10-minute editor visits was amazing.

I remember stopping in to see an editor at Women’s Health to talk about a new line of all natural beef soups. Her office looked like the organic food section at your local grocer. I remember thinking “I’m sure glad we’re not here to talk about the latest Spam line extension. We wouldn’t get far.”

She was very pleasant, listened to our pitch, and offered to try our samples. But you could tell that soup – no matter how much healthier or tastier– just wasn’t something that whet her appetite. “Ho hum” was written all over her face.

Then, as we were leaving, my client pulled out a sample of an all-natural beef jerky the company had on the drawing board. Hello! All of a sudden we had another 10 minutes to talk about potential launch dates, the appeal to protein-hungry, health-conscious athletes, how well it would do at point-of-sale, yadda, yadda, yadda.

It was a real “ah-ha” moment – something a whole host of consumer focus groups couldn’t have told us. Here was one of the top influencers in the healthy food category giving us instant, unfiltered feedback on how the market would react to our new product ideas. And what she was saying was, “Oh, that hundred thousand dollars you just spent on soups, not so smart. Now get moving on that jerky.”

When someone hires Freeman, we leverage our media relationships to help clients better understand what the market’s interests and desires are — including its receptivity to new gizmos. Media thought leaders such as editors and bloggers often have an uncanny understanding of what will and won’t fly in their fields of expertise.

That’s a different, more nuanced way of thinking about PR. It can also be, bottom line, much smarter.