The Stealth Launch

A surprise launch may be difficult to come by, but offers enviable visibility and tremendous market momentum.

11 Min Read
The Stealth Launch


(click to enlarge) Catherine M. Wolfe is director of marketing services, and Robb Young is senior manager of the CT business unit, at Toshiba America Medical Systems Inc. (Tustin, CA).

Every marketer's career should include the opportunity for a stealth launch—the moment when a company announces an innovation that puts it ahead of the competition and captures the unfettered imagination of customers, partners, and patients alike.

Late last year, diagnostic imaging systems provider Toshiba America Medical Systems Inc. (Tustin, CA) engaged in just such a strategy when it launched the Aquilion One dynamic volume 320-detector computed tomography (CT) system. This advanced technology enables physicians to diagnose life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and stroke within minutes, as opposed to the hours or even days required by other diagnostic methods. For a stroke patient, such quick diagnosis can mean the difference between paralysis and little to no brain damage.

Although industry watchers expected that Toshiba was about to introduce a new technology, no one imagined that the system would offer the advances in diagnostic capabilities, reduced use of contrast media, or reduced radiation dose (as much as 80% lower than previous CTs) embodied in the new system. The industry had been discussing 256-detector CT technology for many years, and Toshiba was perceived as being the leader in its development. Other manufacturers were also working on similar technology. The true surprise came when Toshiba was able to announce a technology that was significantly beyond market expectations.

Here's how companies can plan and execute a stealth launch and rise above the dogfight of a competitive environment with significant market momentum.

Scouting the Terrain and Seeding the Market

One of the goals of a stealth launch is to maintain secrecy, so that when the company actually launches, it comes to market with drama and impact. However, it is possible to seed the market with research articles and technology-oriented pieces that can whet the appetite of interested users and smooth the way for a successful launch.

Toshiba installed 256-detector beta systems worldwide for a few years prior to the Aquilion One launch. System users published research results in a variety of medical journals. Additionally, the company participated in many prelaunch media interviews, discussing the system's technology, current research, and promise for patient care.

This strategy had a couple of important results. It generated a good deal of prelaunch visibility for Toshiba as a leader in CT product development. And it fostered the expectation that the company would introduce a 256-detector system.

When a company is scouting its market to determine the quality and character of its launch, it's important to clearly understand the potential depth and breadth of the story with the media. It's good to ask whether the news value of the story is really as big as the company believes it to be.

Many companies may encounter the temptation to bring a technology to market before it is ready. But doing so can risk a loss of credibility. If a company consistently shows off its technologies before they are ready to ship, eventually the market catches on and loses interest. To draw reporters to press conferences, booth tours, and one-on-one interviews, companies must promise a worthwhile story—and then deliver on that promise.

Piloting a Top-Tier Squadron

When building a launch team, it is critical to give careful thought to who should be included and when they should be involved. Early on, an Aquilion One launch team was assembled by selecting members one by one and defining the information they would need to complete their responsibilities. There was great risk that leaks could negatively affect the business and the future of the product itself. Because of this sensitivity, for months prior to the launch, many of the team members operated on the pretense that Toshiba would launch a 256-detector system. Only a limited number of people—essentially a team within the team—had all of the final product information. The importance of this launch to the success of the company was made very clear through the use of confidential nondisclosure agreements distributed by the legal department to Toshiba employees.

As the launch date approached, Toshiba installed 320-detector dynamic volume CT systems at customer sites, and more people were brought into the fold. Each team member had very specific duties, was very clear on team objectives, and knew exactly what they were allowed to do and who they were allowed to talk to. Customers were very honored to be part of the launch plans. The general manager of the CT business unit in Japan personally visited each of the early installation sites to thank customers for their participation and to win their support and secrecy.

The only way to pull off a huge endeavor like the Aquilion One worldwide launch—which spanned years of planning, several countries, and many cultures—is to have clear plans and agreements in place. Toshiba ensured agreement between management in Japan and the United States on where to launch and what marketing and corporate communications would be used.

Working from the Same Manual

Although Aquilion One is an evolutionary technology for Toshiba, representing more than 10 years of development and $500 million in investment, it is a revolutionary technology for the industry. Because the launch of such a product can significantly change how an industry approaches healthcare and how the technology is viewed by physicians—in this case, radiologists—careful communication and education are required.

The Toshiba team spent hours working with the company's PR agency to develop and test the positioning and messaging language for the trade, business, and consumer press. Message maps were created so that everyone understood the guiding principles behind the approach to each audience. These message maps served as the basis for the press conference materials, the physician presentation materials, and the promotional materials. Trial documents were developed and then vetted with team participants and close customers.

Once the message maps were finalized and the materials were developed, Toshiba senior executives, physician users, and product spokespeople worked with presentation coaches on the delivery of their materials. Question and answer documents helped everyone understand all the questions that might arise.

Prepping for Launch

Medical product companies cannot overestimate the importance of certain critical decisions that must be made in order to execute an actual launch. The nature of those decisions may vary by circumstance, objective, and market. Toshiba wrestled with many issues when selecting its launch date for Aquilion One. It was decided that launching at the biggest imaging trade show of the year, the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), was ideal, and would provide the desired impact. Scheduled in November, it suited the company's production and beta-site schedule. Because the show attracts more than 60,000 attendees, it also provided the best venue from which to spread the news quickly.

(click to enlarge)Figure 1. After years of silent preparation, Toshiba launched its Aquilion One system at the 2007 annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, the world's largest show for radiologists. Booth tours for the media were offered at the beginning of the show, leading to the early release of online articles that helped to drive booth traffic throughout the remainder of the show.

It was intended that the Aquilion One system would be available for visitors to see throughout the RSNA show. Consequently, Toshiba scheduled a press tour for 10:00 a.m.—the very hour and day the show opened. Surprised reporters spent 30 minutes in the Toshiba booth, absorbing as much information as possible, and then immediately headed to the newsroom. Online stories were released that day, and Toshiba became the talk of the show (see Figure 1).

Because the technology was new and different from what had been expected, several levels of information needed to be shared with various audiences. During the first day's booth tour, the emphasis was mainly on how the technology was conceived and what it could do. Financial data illustrating how the system could help hospitals save money when diagnosing patients, and clinical data demonstrating the patient benefits, were shared that evening at Chicago's Union Station, at a premier event that attracted nearly 500 physicians and several hundred hospital administrators and technologists. The next day, Toshiba held a press conference highlighting the same information. And in the evening, a repeat of the Union Station event was held.

Although Toshiba focuses primarily on trade press, the story was also shared with the general business and consumer press. Stories appeared in papers such as the Chicago Tribune, and broadcast networks also visited the Toshiba booth.

Mission Complete

To date, the Aquilion One has been sought after and installed at some of the most prestigious institutions in the United States, including Johns Hopkins University, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and the National Institutes of Health. The technology has been recognized for its innovation and impact on healthcare with industry awards and recognition. Additionally, Toshiba has received some of its greatest press coverage ever.

More importantly, the impact on patient care has been tremendous. Numerous cases have been documented in which the technology enabled physicians to diagnose diseases and conditions not previously possible to detect, thereby saving lives and improving overall quality of life.

Additionally, Toshiba's unexpected launch of a 320-detector system providing 16 cm of coverage—enough to capture a full image of a heart or brain—significantly undermined the launch strategy of com­panies planning to introduce 256-detector units providing much narrower coverage. The launch of the Aquilion One succeeded because it made sense to prospects and delivered on its promise: better diagnostic capabilities, fast operation, and improved features related to reducing contrast media use and radiation dose.

Soaring to New Heights

To have a launch plan unfold as intended is an outstanding accomplishment. But every good marketer knows that the launch is only the beginning. To maintain momentum, a company must move seamlessly from launch to production, sales, and installation. Missteps along the way can spell disaster and bring an untimely end to a sales endeavor, even if it began with tremendous promise.

Launch plans should include follow-up strategy for the 12 months after launch. Consideration should be given to how continuing momentum will be generated, addressing questions such as the following.

  • Are materials ready for the sales force?

  • What will constitute ongoing PR coverage?

  • How can the company help the sales force engage its customers and educate the market on the value of the new technology?

  • How will the company help its customers educate their communities about the capabilities of the new technology?

In the case of the Aquilion One, Toshiba is taking a multitiered ap­proach. Because the system sells for a price considerably above what the market has been used to paying for CT technology, the materials that are used to help promote it have been first-rate. Instead of a typical glossy brochure, the company created a high- style coffee-table book.

Financial models have been cre­ated to help institutions understand the system's value—including lower patient-treatment costs and higher throughput. Because this system can replace several different procedures and considerable time with a single low-cost exam, those results are clearly outlined for the financial people who would be involved in such a purchase.

A series of road shows have been sponsored in major cities within each of Toshiba's nine zones. Customers in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, and other major communities across the United States have attended presentations by radiology and cardiology users of the system, who have discussed their personal experiences, how the system is helping them, and what the technology holds for the future.

Toshiba doesn't engage in direct-to-consumer advertising, but works with its customers to educate their patients and provides materials to help them do so. However, Toshiba did conduct a media tour, visiting many well-known business publications in New York City. This tour helped to generate ongoing coverage and excitement.

Today, about 30 of the Aquilion One systems have been installed worldwide, and Toshiba has received orders from many more institutions. Efforts to educate the market on the value and difference this technology offers remain unrelenting. But already it has been highly praised as a technology making a difference, selected by Popular Science for its 'Best of What's New' award, and is in the running for several other notes of recognition.

But most importantly, the new system is helping to diagnose disease and improve lives. And ultimately, that's what a great launch is all about—getting the message out so that people have knowledge about and access to technology that can make a difference in their healthcare.

Copyright ©2008 MX

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