What the Snuggie, the Roomba, and other innovative products can teach you about turning an unknown name and product into a consumer success.
When TV commercials for the Snuggie launched in October of 2008, they were difficult to take seriously. For anyone with an extra sweatshirt in their closet, a lounging woman’s debate between keeping her arms warm and completing simple tasks like answering the phone or knitting was hardly inspiration to direct-order a $20 sleeved blanket. And by the time the ad showed an entire snuggie-clad family cheering at a sporting event, some viewers were too busy laughing to pick up the phone.
But when four million Snuggies were sold in four months, the Snuggie’s creator, Allstar Products, had the last laugh. Within months of its introduction, the Snuggie transformed from a virtually unknown product into a pop culture phenomenon, appearing on The Today Show, referenced on hit TV comedy 30 Rock, and featured in the tabloids. Hundreds of Facebook groups and YouTube parodies spread awareness and boosted sales.
“Once we got people talking, it turned into a great product,” says Scott Boilen, Allstar Product’s CEO. “It was almost like why wouldn’t a blanket have sleeves?”
Today, more than 25 million Snuggies have been sold, making the brand an exemplar for one-of-a-kind products seeking mass consumer acceptance. With tens of thousands of inventions conceived each year, turning an innovative new product into a consumer staple isn’t easy. It requires creativity, ingenuity, and persistence to break into a market and convince consumers they need something that never existed before. Follow the example of the Snuggie and other successful products to make your own invention into a sensation.
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Yes, the creators of Snuggie were in on the joke. Allstar Products intentionally gave its product a quirky name and an over-the-top commercial to promote fun and fashion. But, the Snuggie still upheld Allstar’s core purpose: problem solving. “We’re a problem-solution company,” says Boilen. “We show a problem to a consumer and give them an excellent way to solve it at a good price.”
In order to make a new product something consumers can’t live without, it needs to serve a purpose in your customer’s life. Defining that purpose depends on your individual product’s functionality. Allstar’s problem-solution method takes daily activities and enhances them with a new idea.
The direct marketing consumer product company used a similar solution-based method when promoting Topsy Turvy, a device that allows tomatoes to grow upside down to provide fresh-grown produce without the traditional hassles of a full garden. “That was more about functionality than fun,” Boilen says. “It was a different message that took a little longer for people to get out there. But it was also a big hit.”
For Vapur, a two-year-old company that designs foldable, reusable water bottles, defining a purpose was twofold, both solving a problem and embracing changing consumer desires.
“We knew there was a lot of need for a green water bottle because the green movement was taking off, the economy was tanking, and people were looking for away to get off bottled water,” says co-founder Jason Carignan. “The problem with traditional bottles was that they were as bulky empty as they were full.”
A few rare products are able to leave their purpose undefined, using their customer’s imaginations to fill in the blanks. The Oona, a versatile smartphone holder recently funded through Kickstarter defines itself as Whatever You Need It To Be. “We wanted to create a stand that could do as many things in the physical world as your phone can do in the virtual world,” says co-founder Sam Gordon.
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Once you have a product and you’ve figured out precisely the role it would play in a consumer’s life, it’s time to share that with the public. In order to inspire potential customers to think outside the box, the Oona created a video showing their smartphone stand serving as many purposes in as many places as possible in under three minutes. The creators’ use of multimedia set them apart from other Kickstarter projects, helping them shatter their $10,000 goal with $131,220 in funding from 3,915 backers—a top-10 record for the crowdfunding site.
Finding the perfect words to describe an innovative product through video or more traditional forms of branding can be time consuming. Make sure to allocate enough time before a product launch to allow for a thorough thought process, remembering that you have to build consumer understanding from nothing.
“We were in development for six to nine months, going through rounds and rounds of naming,” says Carignan on Vapur’s branding process. “Do we call it a flexible bottle? A water skin? A pouch?”
Eventually, Vapur named itself the anti-bottle, accepting that its consumers would feel more comfortable with a conventional descriptor. Still, Carignan says the “anti” prefix sets Vapur apart from its competitors. “You put all the rigid bottles in one corner and us in the other,” he says. “We’re the other, better option.”
Sometimes, regardless of how much thought you put into your original ideas, branding becomes an evolution over time. Since it was first released in 2002, the Roomba, the now iconic robotic vacuum has undergone multiple branding changes. Its parent company, iRobot, never intended to call the Roomba a robot. “When we tested the Roomba with customers and asked if it was a robot, they said no,” says Colin Angle, iRobot’s chairman and CEO. “A robot is a humanoid like Commander Data on Star Trek. So we called it an automated vacuum.”
However, as review after review described the Roomba as a robot, public perception began to change. So, iRobot changed its branding as well. “We went from auto vac, to robotic vacuum, to robo vac, to a vacuuming robot,” says Angle. “Now if you wonder if Roomba is a robot: of course it’s a robot.”
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The press not only served the Roomba in transforming its branding, but also helped iRobot overcome general skepticism about their product’s effectiveness. And that’s been one of the product’s major barriers to purchase from Day One to today. According to Angle, the press has become the Roomba’s best and most effective ally.
“For whatever reason the press has always been interested in robots, and like our consumers, all of them were incredibly skeptical when we gave them one,” says Angle. “And then it worked. You take these skeptics, give them something that turns them from skeptic to supporter, and they often become rabid supporters.”
Vapur also relied on sampling to bloggers and social media reviews in order to build a more genuine overview of the product. “That was really critical because once opinionated people started using the product and promoting it, people saw the benefits in a way we were not able to share objectively,” says Carignan. “Once you’ve got your message defined, you’ve got to get it out.”
Working with the media did exactly that for the Oona. A week after its launch on Kickstarter, several publications began reviewing the stand, including the Fast Company Design blog. On May 10, 2010—the day Fast Company’s review came out—the Oona saw more than $20,000 in pledges, starting a massive upward trajectory for the product.
“That was the tipping point,” says Gordon. “From then on more and more blogs picked up the story and we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of tweets and Facebook Likes about The Oona.”
Marketing through social media is an increasingly effective way not only to gain popularity but also to help your new product prove itself to consumers directly. When the Roomba’s potential clients raised concerns about their pets’ safety, iRobot relied on viral YouTube videos made by Roomba owners of cats, dogs, and even turtles riding on the vacuum. “People made them and people loved them,” says Angle. “So we went with it.”
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Since introducing its three original colors in 2008, the Snuggie has relied on its consumers—including its 280,000 Facebook fans—to create the next generation of Snuggies.
“They’re giving longevity to our brand,” says Boilen. “With any product, make sure you’re connecting with your customer, make sure you’re communicating with them, and make sure you’re partnering with them to build your brand for the future.”
Since Day One, the Roomba has put customer service before all else. In the Roomba’s first years, even Angle took his turn manning the customer support line, where he learned just how much his product meant to his customers. “I was on the phone with a lady with a broken Roomba, so I told her to send it back to the store for a replacement,” he recalls. “There was a pause on the line, and she said, ‘No, I’m not giving your Rosie! That was when I knew we had something special.” According to Angle, over eight percent of people name their Roomba, making it more a part of the family.
Even in its nascent stage, the Oona also learned to personalize. Gordon, a public relations agent by day, spends his nights responding to between 50 and 100 e-mails, tweets, comments, and posts the Oona generates daily through social media.
“I would do it all night if I needed to,” says Gordon. “We are so passionate about our product, so we love to see the positive feedback and suggestions from people who a month ago didn’t know we existed. We haven’t been around for long, but we will be.”