When Emily and Oliver Orlik came up with the idea for their baby clothing company, NINA, more than a year ago, a global pandemic was the furthest thing from their minds. The couple was living in Peru at the time, where they met suppliers and cotton farmers involved in Pima fabric production – a high-quality, soft and smooth cotton material.
Back in the UK, the pair made plans to launch their business, working with local creatives to design the first collection. “By March, we were ready to press 'go' on production and launch in May,” says Emily. They had also scheduled a two-week trip to Peru in March, to meet suppliers again and work with a photographer and videographer to create content on the brand’s supply chain.
“We were moments away from flying out when the Peruvian government announced it would stop flights in and out of Europe just days after our touchdown in the country,” she says. “It was also mandating a 14-day quarantine for all new arrivals, something that would make our fortnight-long trip rather ineffective.” The couple was left with no choice but to postpone the launch of their collection.
Their story is common among businesses that had plans to launch new products at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Below are some key guidelines that can help other business owners calibrate how they should think about product launches.
1. Communicate with customers
The team at Wayzn, a company that had planned to launch a smart home product for dog owners, also had to freeze all operations when stay at home measures were put in place.
Founder Adam Smithline says the company already had customer orders lined up, so he reached out early to tell customers what was going on with the manufacturing halt.
“We were honest about the impact on our business and let customers know that we would not be able to move forward with assembly and shipping,” Smithline says. “Then, we asked for their patience. The vast majority of people were empathetic. We also offered refunds to anyone in desperate need of cash.”
2. Think about your message and value proposition
For other businesses with products already available, it can make sense to go ahead with launches, but sensitivity is all-important. “The key to successful messaging during this time is to focus on solving the problems your customers are grappling with right now,” says Allison Bishins, a consultant specialising in helping small businesses.
“Make sure your new product or service helps fix a problem people are having right now, not six weeks ago,” she says.
Social distancing rules, for example, can make it difficult for office-based businesses that rely on seeing physical passports and other identity documents to comply with anti-money laundering regulations. To help address these challenges, SmartSearch, a Yorkshire-based software firm, moved up the launch of its electronic verification services.
“We accelerated the introduction of facial recognition to our existing 4,500 client firms and now offer it to new clients to overcome the challenges of social distancing whilst enabling them to remain fully compliant,” says CEO John Dobson.
While the company’s method of communication hasn’t changed, its messaging has. “Like most of the dialogue today, much of our messaging is focused around COVID-19 and how we manage the workarounds to enable businesses to operate,” he says. These communications will be fine-tuned as regulations – and the definition of what 'the new normal' is – continue to evolve.
3. Be supportive in any way you can
If delaying a product launch isn’t an option, a focus on making messaging as sensitive as possible should happen alongside it. Fabian Geyrhalter, author of How To Launch A Brand, says companies may want to consider donating a portion of their profits to an organisation supporting communities impacted by the crisis.
That’s the approach Emily and Oliver have taken with NINA. “While we couldn’t really do much about making baby clothes, we did have a pretty awesome little book of artists,” says Emily. They got in touch with the creatives they’d already been working with to launch The Motherhood Prints, a collection of limited edition prints for new parents. All profits are donated to NHS Charities Together.
Not only did their initiative support a great cause, the pair has also seen positive results on raising brand awareness. “It’s been a great learning experience to get a product off the ground super quickly, testing digital ads, PR, and those first online sales,” says Emily.
4. Evaluate the risk versus reward of launching
The risks of launching a product or service right now are many, including lower initial sales and even negative customer sentiment if messaging is perceived as insensitive. Another risk is that many customers simply have less money to spend because of widespread redundancies and companies furloughing staff.
But what if you’ve spent a big portion of the year’s budget on research and development and you have no other option than to launch your product?
“In that case, it may make sense to launch,” says Geyrhalter. “Even if you have slower sales, at least you will be in people’s faces, and maybe higher on their list once things get better.”
There are less players in the field at the moment. Less companies are spending money on marketing and consumers are seeing less products advertised on social media, so there is more room to be noticed, he mentions.
London-based lighting designer Marc Wood has made the decision to continue investing in marketing. He had planned to introduce his new Rosa collection at Milan Design Week in April, but when the event was cancelled, a business-as-usual launch became impossible. “We understood that sales were going to take a hit, so did a soft launch online and focused our efforts instead on marketing and growing our digital footprint,” he says.
The business has revamped its website and launched a journal and e-newsletter series. “Usually we have to compete with many other larger brands when launching new collections and it can be difficult to be heard," explains Wood. "However, things are understandably quiet right now and this seems to be working in our favour.”
5. Know your customers
Understanding the needs and wants of your customers is among the most important things to do right now when considering a launch. Geyrhalter recently came across a luxury workwear clothing company that was doing well, primarily because its clients wanted to look great during video conference calls.
“In that case, it gives customers an emotional boost, which is also important right now,” he says. “If a product provides joy during these times, it could be incredibly valuable.
“Companies need to think deeper and be empathetic with their audiences," he adds. "The ones that do will survive. This is sadly a crash course that companies didn’t sign up for, but those that do it well will come out as more beloved brands on the other side.”