Transforming Inspiration into SKUs

Every successful product starts out the same way—with an inspiration; that “gotcha” moment when the proverbial light bulb goes off and the big idea you were looking for appears before you. Inspiration is the key, but it’s just the beginning.

The hard work and heavy lifting that you put into researching the validity of your inspiration, the effort you put into creating and sustaining a market for it is what makes the difference between the good idea that tanks and the good idea that turns into a successful business. And that’s where things get tricky. How do you take your new product and transform it into a successful brand with a growing and diversified number of SKUs? How do you expand a product line? How do you decide what the best new direction will be? Do you keep tweaking your own original idea or do take a different direction that complements but doesn’t mirror your original line?

My own method is to ask myself: “What am I personally missing? What would I like for myself? What about this existing problem isn’t solving all of my problems?”

In the last 10 years, my company, Spongeables, has launched two successful brands, and we are in the process of introducing a number of others. We’ve come up with a template that works. Of course there are no guarantees. You have to have the right product at the right time. You have to devote time and effort, unstintingly, to selling the product, to publicizing it, to creating a market that did not previously exist. A little luck along the way doesn’t hurt, either.

Spongeables introduced the first shower gel infused body buffers. The product came about because I was tired of my toddler getting into the shower and spilling my expensive cleansing gels and skin lotions. My husband and I developed the concept of an all-in-one product with everything you needed already infused inside the buffer. We devised formulas that included skin care ingredients and hand-blended fragrances, found the perfect vehicle for the infused formulas in a buffer that changed texture as it absorbed water, and sought patent protection for our new idea.

Getting the Word Out

Since we were bringing out a completely new product, our next step was to introduce retailers and consumers to something they had not seen or used before.

Getting the word out means getting the press on your side. I met with the top editors at every important magazine, and put product directly into their hands. We set up an information system, providing them with photos, product, give-aways, story ideas and press releases, making it as easy as possible for them to give us the coverage we needed. We created a celebrity following by working with publicists to put our body buffers directly into the hands of Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson, Halle Berry, Helen Mirren and most of the biggest names in Hollywood. We used product placement services to put our body buffers into gift bags and top Hollywood events. And we actively sought coverage on the Internet, reaching out to bloggers and reviewers with information and samples.

Producers of every major show were on our hit list, as were producers at every television station in the country. When we signed up a new spa or salon to sell our product, we provided them with local press contact information and press material. You don’t need to spend a fortune in advertising if you are willing to work hard for editorial coverage. It takes longer, but the effort pays for itself many, many times over.

Our marketing focus was on beauty salons and spas, so we contacted trade publications serving that market and provided them with story ideas, new product material, whatever they needed to give us the coverage we required.

It took two years, but we managed to create a niche for ourselves. We started winning awards, and when we did, we made sure every spa and salon in the country knew about it. We sent them monthly newsletters with special offers. It’s not enough to have a great product, you have to give your retailers a good reason to give you some of their very limited space, and their clients and customers a good reason to pick your product.

Time to Grow

When it became obvious that the line needed to grow, we split the line into two separate brands, changing our formulas sufficiently to have two distinct products: one for mass market and one for the prestige end of the business. At this point, we also wanted to introduce additional SKUs and went to work developing foot buffers both lines.

This followed our plan of introducing unique products that could have their own niche within the body and bath line. The infused buffer concept was perfectly translatable to foot care, and allowed us expansion room to create additional products with different formulas for different needs

Distribution of our Spongelle Pedi-Buffers is now worldwide, and it is about to become our hero product. We’ve taken the infused buffer concept into many new dimensions that seem like natural outgrowths: we make products for men, we’ve added an anti-cellulite line and a children’s line. We also private label for everything from film studios to designer fragrances, but to keep the momentum going, you need to keep expanding your best product.

Once you have your niche established, you need to keep your customers happy. Customer service is essential. I make sure I am in contact with my key salons and spas on a regular basis. If a product is selling well, I want to know. And if it isn’t, I want to know even more. You can establish a good idea of what works regionally, nationally and internationally, just by doing a random sampling of your retailers in those areas. Keeping them in the loop, making them part of your team, builds a relationship that keeps your product strong. Creating a system where your customers feel comfortable contacting you, where they know you will respond quickly and positively to their feedback goes a long way toward increased sales.

There are no shortcuts and there are no foolproof tricks when it comes to turning an inspiration into a successful SKU, and turning a single SKU into a successful product line.

Follow your instincts, but do your homework. Examine the marketplace; check out competing products, internationally as well as domestically. If it’s big in France and Japan, it’s on its way here, and you don’t want to debut your version a week after some giant corporation has introduced theirs. Due diligence is the best kind of inspiration when it comes to new product development. After that, all you need is willpower, determination and a healthy infusion of blood, sweat and tears.

Elaine Binder was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to the U.S. in 1978. With a degree in performing arts and armed only with entrepreneurial spirit, she launched two successful brands, Spongeables and Spongelle, by creating a new niche in the personal care category aisle. Elaine is now focusing on Spongelle, Beyond Cleansing skin care infused body buffers targeted toward the most exclusive spas, hotels and resorts as well as pristine retail outlets. Elaine is a sought-after consultant to other companies and specializes in new product rollouts both in the U.S. and internationally, particularly in China and Hong Kong, U.K., Russia, South Korea, Europe, Australia and the Middle East.

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