How to launch a product during Covid-19

Manufacturers are getting creative about putting products in front of dealers and media
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Raymarine had to scramble to prep a virtual launch for its Axiom+ series 
MFDs and updated software.

Raymarine had to scramble to prep a virtual launch for its Axiom+ series MFDs and updated software.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to deter travel, manufacturers are trying to figure out how to showcase new products to media, dealers, distributors and consumers. Technology has helped to display products virtually, but its use creates a marketing dilemma with hands-on products that need to be seen and touched.

New kinds of creativity are becoming a requirement in marketing plans, including the unveiling of products outside of major boat and trade shows — a trend that had begun prior to Covid-19, when activity-based products such as flats boats or walleye fishing gear were launching at local shows in markets where those activities are popular.

“This is a really exciting time for us to reimagine how we’re connecting with our dealer base and with consumers,” says Sarah Harper Burke, senior marketing manager for Shimano North America’s fishing division. “What the pandemic has affected more than anything is just timelines. It’s kind of taken ICAST out of the mix with the rock-solid date where everyone comes out with their latest and greatest. It’s created a lot more flexibility about our new launches.”

While ICAST and other in-person events are critical for new products, virtual launches give manufacturers more flex when debuting gear.

While ICAST and other in-person events are critical for new products, virtual launches give manufacturers more flex when debuting gear.

Covid-19 has led to the cancellation of major fall events, including the Newport International Boat Show, Tampa Boat Show and Cannes Yachting Festival. Organizers of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show say it will go on barring any government mandates, using AllSecure guidelines for deep-cleaning protocols before, during and after each day, strict social distancing guidelines and mandatory masks.

Still, manufacturers are looking beyond traditional shows for product-launch opportunities. Raymarine had originally planned to debut its Axiom+ multifunction displays and updated LightHouse charts at a media event in Clearwater, Fla. Raymarine and FLIR marketing manager Jim McGowan says “all of that had to be scrapped as things started locking down. This is our first product debut during virus time, so it’s been a learning curve, for sure.”

Yamaha Marine was slated to debut its Helm Master EX joystick system to the media during a June event at its test facility in Bridgeport, Ala. The company moved the event online and held the public debut July 1. “I think the key for the consumers is for the dealerships to understand the reason the consumer should purchase the product,” says Yamaha communications manager Melissa Boudoux. “If we have to go virtual for those major boat shows, it takes away the opportunity for us to educate people, so we need to come up with ways to do that virtually. As a consumer, they’ll look at the price tag, and if they don’t really understand the functionalities, they might not understand the cost. That’s why it’s so important for the sales representatives to understand the product.”

Yamaha launched Helm Master EX virtually after the pandemic forced the cancellation of the system’s 
in-person media debut.

Yamaha launched Helm Master EX virtually after the pandemic forced the cancellation of the system’s in-person media debut.

Engaging with the Press

In determining how to retool its event, Yamaha sent questionnaires to members of the media. The company asked how many people would be comfortable traveling to locations such as Annapolis, Md., and Sandusky, Ohio, to demo the new single-outboard Helm Master EX system.

“It’s crazy times, and people have different anxiety levels than others,” Boudoux says. About 15 to 20 journalists said they were interested in traveling, but favored events they could reach by car, Boudoux says.

Many boat shows and other launch events have been cancelled.

Many boat shows and other launch events have been cancelled.

Yamaha also did something it had never done — something almost unheard of where outboard engine manufacturers are concerned. It leaked the product detail sheet, or “hot sheet,” to the press and asked that reporters sit on the information for weeks. The move was designed to give reporters more time to familiarize themselves with Helm Master EX and ask questions leading up to the virtual debut. Yamaha didn’t want them to have to rush to understand some of the more complex functions and features.

“We would never have had the success of this virtual launch without the media,” Boudoux says. “We trusted them to say, ‘We’re giving this information to you, and it’s confidential.’ That’s something we’ve never been able to do with so many different folks, and really trust them not to leak the information. Instead of sitting at the launch and furiously typing to get as much information as you can from the hot sheets, the media had time to mull through the information and have phone interviews beforehand.”

The Education Factor

Regulator and Yamaha offer demo opportunities so members of the media can more easily write about new products.

Regulator and Yamaha offer demo opportunities so members of the media can more easily write about new products.

Shimano leveraged its partnership with the American Sportfishing Association, the owner and producer of ICAST, to reimagine its product debuts. On the first day of the virtual event, Shimano introduced all of its new products, Burke says. On day two, the company took a deep dive into each freshwater product. Day three focused on saltwater products.

“We planned it that way to make sure we capture our audience, our heavy hitters that we anticipate winning in our new-product showcase, as well as consumers,” Burke says. “It can be a benefit to our dealers who are looking to better understand the product, to give them that information to share with their customers and consumers. They can geek out on the tech, which is really fun.”

Raymarine also leaned into heavy education. At its dealer meeting in early 2020, the company had prototype units for dealers to see and provide feedback. Then the company reached out to key accounts before the launch of Axiom+, McGowan says.

Yamaha held a well-attended media event in St. Michaels, Md., last year.

Yamaha held a well-attended media event in St. Michaels, Md., last year.

“Like so many, we’ve been heavily using Zoom conference,” McGowan says. “We’ve come up with ways I can hook the Axiom product up and stream over Zoom, so we can at least show products live. We can apply some technology to the problem and make it a little easier to demonstrate.”

Getting Products Out There

One of the largest hurdles with electronics is that they’re expensive, low-margin products, so dealers don’t typically commit to having units on display. “That’s some big bucks, even when we put incentives behind it,” McGowan says. “But in this scenario, this is one of those times it’s important for us to lean on local dealers.”

Raymarine is developing a program to let dealers order new products at a substantial discount if they agree to keep them in showrooms for a minimal amount of time. “After that, they can do whatever they want with it — sell it at a discount, put it on their own boat — but we will cut the price substantially to make it something they’ll want to take advantage of,” McGowan says. “Often, we’ll bundle that to displays. If they buy enough, we will send them a Raymarine full-branded piece of furniture to show it off.”

Martin Peters of Yamaha during the virtual launch of the Helm Master EX joystick system. 

Martin Peters of Yamaha during the virtual launch of the Helm Master EX joystick system. 

Shimano traditionally holds in-person dealer camps to discuss what’s coming and is adjusting to a virtual stage. “That’s where we’ve really had to get creative,” Burke says. “We’re still hosting dealer camps, but we’re doing so in a virtual way, where we’re still hitting those key objectives of building relationships, having some contact and hands-on time, albeit without having the product in hand and without being on the water. Nothing will replicate going fishing together.”

What the larger companies are doing now, Burke says, she hopes smaller companies will be able to do in the future, for the good of the overall industry. “This is going to be their larger spend, and we need healthy competition; we need a healthy industry moving forward,” she says. “I hope they will create a solution for those smaller brands getting off the ground. Yes, we have quite the advantage, and we hope to lean into where our key audiences are enthusiastic, and they are very enthusiastic supporters of the brand. We want to make sure we’re giving them what they want while maintaining a healthy industry overall.” 

This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.

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