When Adam Smithline and his brother-in-law, Mike Demele, came up with the idea for their company Wayzn, a global pandemic was the furthest thing from their minds. It was early 2018, and the pair were on a ski trip near Lake Tahoe discussing how expensive pet care was. Over a few beers, the two dog owners hatched a plan to create a smart door opener—an attachment to an existing sliding glass door that would open via smartphone—to let their dogs into their fenced in backyards during their short stints away from home.
Over the next few years, the pair worked tirelessly perfecting the product, telling the public about it and even crowdfunding for a prototype. They had planned to ship the company’s first batch of units this spring, right when their state, California, announced its shelter-in-place order.
“Back in March, we felt panicked,” remembers Smithline. “But we also had a sense of what was about to happen a few weeks prior. We live in the Bay Area where everyone was getting nervous about going to work, and our manufacturing partner was no different. When the shelter-in-place order became official, it meant our team couldn’t get into the facility to do work. We didn’t have any choice but to halt all operations.”
Since then, Smithline and his team have been continuing with some software development, but beyond that, they don’t have a lot of options. They’ve put a hiring freeze on the company and are trying to be as transparent as possible with their customers, many of whom have been waiting months for their products.
“Back in late March, we sent out an email with our new timeline, which basically said that this may last until late April, and that we will start again at our facility in early May,” he says. “That is kind of where we still are.”
Smithline’s story is common among businesses that had plans to launch new products at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. A few key guidelines can help other business owners calibrate how they should think about product launches.
1. Communicate with customers.
The team at Wayzn reached out to customers early to tell them what was going on with the forced halt in manufacturing, and for the most part, customers understood.
“We were honest about the impact on our business and let them know that we will 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. Be mindful of messaging.
If delaying a product launch isn’t an option, a focus on making messaging as sensitive as possible should happen alongside it. “Right now, every launch is about the messaging—that should be every company’s top concern,” says Fabian Geyrhalter, principal at FINIEN, a Los Angeles-based branding agency, and author of How To Launch A Brand.
A company launching a skincare product, for example, could offer half-off for health care workers, he says, because even now, everyone needs skincare products.
“But don’t do a [social media] shoot with your product where you talk about having so much time at home that you can revamp your skincare,” suggests Geyrhalter. “Instead, offer to give a portion of your proceeds to a local hospital.”
“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 of Tacoma, Washington-based Allison Bishins Consulting, which specializes 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. “Launching high-end formalwear may be tricky, but a loungewear or athleisure line could do really well.”
If a company does decide to launch, they may want to consider donating a portion of their profits (or a portion during a specific week or few days) to an organization that is helping solve the COVD-19 crisis. Bishins also recommends working with influencers who are “tactful and socially responsible to make sure messaging is on point.”
3. Put the customer—not the brand—first
The COVID-19 crisis is forcing companies to think about how to help the greater good. This means the brands that will come out on top are those that are showing they authentically care about their base, and about humanity in general.
“I get aggravated when I see television ads showing devastation and empty streets, but that end with a company logo; I really think that is going too far right now,” says Geyrhalter, adding that the ads resonate with him more are the ones that don’t include a logo, but instead end with a URL of how viewers can help. “It is a good lesson for any brand to learn—it is less about you and more about them.”
4. Evaluate the risks vs. rewards 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, says Geyrhalter. Another risk is that many customers simply have less money to spend because of widespread layoffs.
In the reward category, though, 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.
Make sure your new product or service helps fix a problem people are having right now, not six weeks ago.
—Allison Bishins, owner, Allison Bishins Consulting
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.”
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.”
Photo: Getty Images