Product Launch Horror Stories (And How to Avoid Them)

When the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington went operational in 1940, it was hailed as a great feat of structural engineering and technological progress that the whole world could benefit from. It was the third longest suspension bridge on Earth and, according to its architect, the most flexible ever built. But just four months later, the entire bridge collapsed into the Puget Sound. (Incredibly, you can watch it here).

Now that’s a product launch horror story!

Most of us are probably not responsible for overseeing the development of anything with the life-and-death stakes of a bridge suspended two hundred feet above water. But the launch of any new product under your strategic direction certainly carries its own very real stakes for you and your company.

Learn the Anatomy of a Product Launch ➜

Which is why it’s so important to treat your product launch with the same level of care and attention to detail that you’ve poured into every other aspect of your product’s development. No matter how great a product you’ve shepherded from brainstorm to GA-ready, you cannot simply send it into the market and rely on its inherent greatness to carry it to success. The product launch is its own separate, mission-critical initiative — and it needs to be dealt with carefully.

Here are a few items you should add to your product launch checklist.

1. Make sure your product is truly ready for success.

This sounds obvious. But making sure your product is ready for success involves much more than making sure you’ve got a great product. You will need to do that, of course — and that will require testing the product for bugs, checking it against your strategic goals and product roadmap to make sure you’ve included the most important components of the user experience, etc.

Tweet This:
“Before you launch, make sure your product is truly ready for success.”

But a successful product launch will also require the coordinated efforts of multiple teams across your company. So you’ll also need to ask yourself questions such as:

  • Is your support team ready to field questions and solve users’ problems, and can you scale up your support resources quickly if initial demand is high?
  • Are your sales reps sufficiently trained and knowledgeable about the product and the purchase process to respond to a high number of inbound prospect requests?
  • If you are launching a physical product (even if it’s software shipped on a physical media device), are your current inventory levels, manufacturing processes and shipping infrastructure all ready to support a high level of demand?

On that last question, the story of Razer might be useful. Razer is a manufacturer of gear for gamers: laptops, video game accessories, gaming software, etc.

When the company introduced its Razer Blade gaming laptop a few years ago, they took a big hit — and not because the notebook itself was defective or underwhelming. Their problem was just the opposite, in fact. The Blade was an immediate hit, but the company hadn’t set up its infrastructure properly and wasn’t able to ship product to consumers for months.

Before you launch your product, you need to make sure that everything needed to facilitate the product’s success — from customer support to marketing to sales to shipping — is ready for a best-case scenario.

2. Gather evidence that there’s an actual market for your product.

This is where you find most of the infamous cases of product failures. New Coke. Premium Smokeless Cigarettes. The Segway. Apple’s Newton.

Product management requires both art and science, both innovation and hard data. It can be tempting to set out to create something truly original and groundbreaking in your industry. And sometimes, that can even work.

But you need to temper your innovative side with an analytical side that is equally influential in your team’s strategic decision making. You need to test, to survey, to subject your ideas to the cold reality of real-world feedback.

Tweet This:
” Gather evidence that there’s an actual market for your product.”

New Coke failed, for example, because the product team uncharacteristically misread their consumers. Coca-Cola actually makes regular tweaks to its Coke recipe, but the New Coke launch was one of the first times in the company’s history that it loudly touted a brand-new flavor. Had they gathered more consumer data, the marketers likely would have realized that most Coke drinkers don’t want a major overhaul of their favorite soda.

The Apple Newton arguably failed because the concept of a portable, keyboard-less computer with a stylus was simply too early for the market. The Newton came out before high-speed Internet, WiFi everywhere, and YouTube — leaving consumers without much of an idea of what to do with such a device. It appears that Apple here allowed its innovative side to overpower its analytical side — failing to assess whether there were truly enough consumers out there to warrant such a product launch at that time.

Of course, the Newton ultimately led to the iPhone, which became one of the fastest-selling consumer electronics products ever. But the lesson here is that it won’t matter how awesome your product idea is — the launch is likely to fall flat if you haven’t already established beforehand that there’s a market to support it.

3. Make sure you and your team have thrown rocks at the product from every angle.

Finally, sometimes painstaking product development and massive investments of resources can be totally undermined by a simple oversight that the product team shouldn’t have missed. One of the most common types of these oversights is in naming the product.

Here’s one very recent example. George Mason University renamed its law school in 2016 to honor the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. With the best of intentions, and $30 million in combined donations to launch the newly renamed school, the university team came up with this for its new name: The Antonin Scalia School of Law — or ASSoL. (Pronounce it out loud, using the long ‘o’ sound).

Tweet This:
“Throw rocks at your product from angle before launch day.”

You’ve probably heard of some of the hilarious examples of product marketing teams failing to learn how their natively named products or taglines would translate in other languages. But in case you haven’t, here are a few of the more notorious fails:

  • When they entered the Chinese market, Coca-Cola was often translated as “Bite the Wax Tadpole.”
  • Pepsi’s longtime tagline, “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life,” was originally translated in China as “Pepsi Brings You Back from the Grave.”
  • When IKEA introduced a new children’s work bench in its US stores, the company used the product’s original Swedish name, which meant “Speedy.” But in English it read quite differently to consumers: The “Fartfull Work Bench.”

4. Make sure your product doesn’t, uh, do this…

Honestly, we weren’t sure where on the list to put this example. (For reasons that will become clear soon, placing it at number two would’ve been a bit too on-the-nose.) But it definitely deserves a place here — if only because it’s a reminder of how important it is to take into account the total user experience of your product.

Ever hear of WOW Chips? When Frito-Lay debuted them in the late 1990s as “fat free” potato chips, they became an instant hit with health-conscious consumers. There was just one problem: WOW Chips were fried in a fat substitute called Olestra which — ready for this? — had been demonstrated to cause diarrhea.

In fact, the FDA ordered Frito-Lay to place a warning label on its WOW bags warning consumers that the chips might cause “abdominal cramping and loose stools.” This led comedian Ray Romano to point out, “They’d have to be pretty good… if they were going to make me change clothes!”

Besides being a fun product launch horror story, the WOW Chips example should serve as a cautionary tale about failing to take into account your users’ entire experience — not only the aspects of the product you’re proud of and eager to highlight, but the whole process, from purchase to setup or assembly to day-to-day use.

A nice metaphor for this item on your product launch checklist is the safety testing that automakers do with every new model of car they develop. You’ve seen enactments of these tests in television commercials — the engineering and safety teams subject their vehicles to stress from falling rocks, to head-on collisions into walls, to high-speed turns on icy roads, you name it. They’re taking into account the entire driving experience — the worst that could happen to their customers. You should do the same.

Imagine the FDA, FCC or Better Business Bureau will be reviewing your product’s user experience and demanding you place the most unflattering warning label on it before shipping. Whatever you’re thinking might be on that warning label, deal with it before you launch.

Do you have any product launch horror stories of your own? Any suggestions for other PMs on how to avoid them? Please share!