Marketing a Copycat Product

I've launched a $40 product that is a sweater and quilt combined. My target market is older females and tailgaters at sporting events and I'm selling it online. How can I get some voices to help me get the word out? Where can I find other places that would be a good fit to sell my product? —W.T., Fullerton, Calif.

A sweater and quilt combined—where have we heard that idea before? You aren't the first to market with this concept, but that does not necessarily mean your product won't succeed. Oftentimes, first-out-of-the-gate products get swamped by later competitors who refine and improve on an idea the public has had time to accept.

So, what do you do first? Revise your target market. You list two fairly disparate customer groups where there is not likely to be a huge intersection. So start concentrating on one or the other first, and put your marketing efforts toward reaching that group rather than spreading your time and budget thin trying to do both.

Since you're already selling on the Web, consider using some of the promotional tools available online. Phil Robinson, strategy director for online business directory HotFrog, says you'll have an easier time using social media to reach sporty moms and college students than you will finding older females. "There are quite a few Facebook groups specific to favorite teams, colleges, and tailgating parties" and not quite so many for older women, he notes.

Because your ideal customers will not be searching for your product, you must find them and become top-of-mind where they are interacting online. "If you enjoy hanging out online, join some of those Facebook groups and take part. Post photos on Flickr of people wearing your products at tailgate parties," he suggests. "Don't do a hard sell, but do meet your potential customers as an ordinary person."

Brand Visibility

Along with interacting with your customers, you can start to get visibility for your brand with pay-per-click advertising on the sites they frequent. "People may not click on your ad, but they'll start to get used to seeing it there," Robinson says. "The more specific you are with your keywords, the more you can reduce your cost and target a narrow market."

For instance, rather than buying a Google (GOOG) ad for the general term "tailgate supplies," you might bid on ads for keyword phrases that mention a particular sports franchise or location. "Your conversion rate will be better, and your cost will be lower," Robinson says. Use a program such as Google AdWords' keyword tool to help you discover popular search terms among your target market.

Jason Morrison, executive director of Capitol Media Solutions in Atlanta, recommends that you take an experiential route when pitching your new product. "You want people to use your product, try it on, feel it, and see it for themselves," he says. "Go to a sporting event and put up a booth showcasing your product. Let people try it and then give them a poster or a card that directs them to your website where they can get 20 percent off" as one of your inaugural customers.

Brand engagement is crucial for a new product, and creating a kind of "craze" around your sweater-quilt can really help drive interest. "Think up a creative, viral story that you could use to move sales exponentially," Morrison says, citing Smirnoff's (DEO) "You've been iced" campaign (which the vodka brand didn't create and doesn't endorse).

Consistent Message

It's important that your brand message is consistent over any medium you use for marketing purposes, and that you always send potential customers directly to a site where they can put in an order. "If you send somebody from an ad to a phone number and then to a website, you're adding another layer of communication and we know that success rates are lower when you do that," he says.

In terms of establishing retail partners, consider online team stores, campus bookstores, and local sporting goods stores. If you can find a way to get a team name or logo emblazoned on your product—which may be a costly proposition due to trademark issues—that would increase its appeal.

Meanwhile, make sure you establish a Facebook fan page, Twitter account, and other online sites for your company. "Even if you're not going to use them immediately, you want the coverage and you want to own your brand online," Robinson says. "You want to come up top in search once people have learned about your product and are looking for it online." YouTube videos, slide shows, blogs, and photo pages can all help you find those early adopters who will champion your brand.

And think about "cause" marketing and whether it could fit in with your overall marketing plan, says Todd Miechiels, an Internet marketing strategist with "Any time you can tie cause marketing with social/viral marketing, you have the chance to hit some lightning in a bottle in terms of awareness," he says. Pick a cause and partner with a nonprofit organization that you can sponsor. "With this sort of thing, you can get some positive karma, goodwill, and ride the coattails of a much bigger cause and nonprofit group." Good luck!

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