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Hey there! My name is Ed Cho, and I’m the Director of Product Marketing at Salesforce.

I’m super excited to talk to you about a topic that's very personal to me: the art of product relaunches, and how to reinvigorate a brand and reignite Go-to-Market success

Product launches: The ultimate test

If you were to ask any product marketer, “What is the one kind of experience you hope to have in your career?” I bet the majority of them would say doing a product launch. There’s no experience out there that requires you to use such a multitude of skills as bringing a product to the market. 

For example, doing a product launch requires strategy formation. It requires you to understand who your competitors are. It requires market research to uncover who your consumers are and the pain points they’re dealing with. It requires you to take those insights and translate them into a compelling messaging and positioning framework. 

All the while, you’ve got to work cross-functionally with sales, product, and marketing leaders to define your Go-to-Market strategy. And as if that weren’t enough, you’ve got to work with sales leaders to make sure that they're executing the field to drive revenue. 

In short, product launches are the ultimate test for product marketers. They’re where all the hard work we’ve done and all the experience we’ve gained come to fruition. 

Even though the product takes center stage at a product launch, behind the scenes, we stand to benefit from it. That’s because all the nuances, ambiguity, and challenges that go into our product launches will give us the wisdom, confidence, and experience to supercharge our careers. 

Not all product launches are equal

However, not all product launches are considered equal. In my experience, they generally fall into one of three categories (or tiers):

  1. Impact launches
  2. Standard launches
  3. Relaunches 

Impact launches are tier-one, strategic launches that can define markets and change the trajectory of a company. For example, at Salesforce it would be equivalent to Marc Benioff deciding to go all-in on AI. He might tell you to take the lead in creating messaging and positioning around Salesforce’s AI point of view. 

Once that messaging was set, AI would take center stage on the website and at Dreamforce. You might even speak during the keynote. Plus, you’d get a team of 20 people and an ample budget to create content. That's an example of an impact launch, which most of us strive for in our careers.

But the reality is that few of us will lead an impact launch. Most will oversee what I call “standard launches” – non-strategic launches for new features, product updates, or smaller products. These kinds of launches drive incremental change instead of seismic change, and they don’t involve big publicity pushes.

The third category is relaunches – putting additional resources behind a product that didn’t gain much traction on its first release. 

For the rest of this article, I want to focus on relaunches because in my experience, overcoming their challenges provides meaningful learning experiences equivalent to, if not greater than, impact launches.

How to relaunch a product that failed the first time around

I don’t just want to talk about how to relaunch a product; I want to raise the stakes and talk about relaunching a product that failed. And by “failed’ I don’t mean a product that had its moment in the sun but faded away – I mean a product that totally did not meet expectations, burning bridges and leaving the brand in tatters. 

That was the situation I inherited when I returned from paternity leave in March. To set the context, let me tell you a story. 

I came back after welcoming my first son (if you work for a company that offers paid parental leave, take it; it's an incredible experience). As you may remember, the beginning of 2023 had been tough on tech, Salesforce was not immune. We went through several rounds of layoffs on top of a major org restructure. Morale was low, and people feared for their jobs. I went from owning five products to just one.

My manager sat me down and said, “Ed, I need you to lead the relaunch of ‘Salesforce Aladdin’” (the codename of a product I can’t disclose for confidentiality reasons). “This could be a moneymaker,” he told me. “Go and rebuild trust within the field after what happened during the first launch.” My reaction: “Wait – what exactly happened?” I wasn’t aware of the whole story.

So here's what had happened: a couple of years ago, Salesforce Aladdin was launched to great fanfare as a key security and privacy product. The product-market fit was excellent – customers were excited about the solution and our sellers were too. In fact, when it first went into general availability (GA) we signed 400 customers and generated $12 million in ACV – an ideal start. 

However, shortly after launch, we heard complaints that the product wasn’t working. And I’m not talking about minor bugs – clear systemic issues were causing it to crash and fail to work as intended. What started as a handful of frustrated customers grew to dozens, then hundreds. 

After months of trying and failing to resolve the cascading problems, the situation became toxic. Customers were yelling at salespeople, salespeople were yelling at product managers, and product managers were yelling at engineers. Executives tried and failed to turn it around. So, after six or seven rocky months, Salesforce pulled Aladdin off the market.

Understandably, a lot of customers were frustrated, and salespeople were extremely unhappy, too. As a former sales rep myself, I sympathize – one of the worst things you can experience is losing customer trust. Unless you have an ultra-tight relationship, burned prospects will likely resist buying from you again. This was a huge blow to reps who were grinding to hit quarterly quotas.

I confirmed this by reaching out to the top reps I’d worked closely with and asking their thoughts on me leading the Aladdin relaunch. They all said variations of: “Ed, there are a lot of people who are still pissed off from last time. Good luck!”

So, how did I feel at the time? Not happy. 

I felt I'd been given the proverbial bag of lemons or, worse – set up to fail so my manager could fire me. After a few days of self-pity, I realized relaunching Aladdin successfully could be a tremendous opportunity. Just imagine being in a job interview and being able to whip out this kind of story about turning around such a cursed situation!

So, I threw myself into the challenge and soon realized that to achieve Go-to-Market success, I had to nail two things: 

  1. Rebuilding trust with the sales team
  2. Building enough momentum so the product sustains itself post-launch.

So, let’s dive into a real-life case study of what I did to achieve those two goals and pull off a successful relaunch.

Rebuilding trust with the sales teams 

Want to know how I managed to regain the trust of our sales teams? Let me share my story. 

Step one: Identify key sales stakeholders

At a big company like Salesforce, multiple people own product sales, not just one. 

First are the core account executives (core AEs) – the top salespeople compensated for selling all Salesforce products. They decide what to sell into each account, so every product marketer wants to get in front of them. If they don’t know your product, it basically doesn’t exist. We needed their buy-in.

If a core AE needs to get technical for IT or security buyers, they’ll loop in a platform AE who sells a smaller portfolio, or sales engineers and technical architects who understand technical requirements and know how to configure solutions. And then finally, there are sales program managers, who I’ll talk more about later. These five groups were the stakeholders we needed to rebuild trust with.

Step two: Listen

To win back their trust, I identified the top five or six people in each role and set up one-on-ones just to listen – a Jerry Maguire-esque desperate quest for truth. I’d say something like: “I know the first Aladdin launch created a lot of controversy. Can you share how it impacted you?”

I was surprised by the raw emotions – fears, frustrations, and anxieties over repeating the past. By listening as they opened up to me, I built credibility and trust. I started to restore their confidence because they knew I wanted them to succeed. 

The second question I asked was straightforward: “What will it take to restore your confidence in product marketing and management?” They gave me plenty of pointers. 

Unsurprisingly, one key demand was: “If you want to regain our trust, make sure you have an audience with all of us.” So, I worked with product management on a cascading enablement strategy, starting with the technical architects, then the sales engineers, then the platform AEs, and, finally, the core AEs and sales program managers.  

The cascading aspect was critical. Core AEs frankly aren’t that technical. If they have product questions, they’ll ask platform AEs, architects, or sales engineers first. If those groups aren't enabled before the core AEs, they can't help, which further erodes trust.

Step three: Lead with honesty and humility

Once we’d got those enablement sessions on the calendar, the question became what to actually say. What should our approach be?

I’ll tell you what we didn’t do: walk all high and mighty, pretending everything was hunky dory. That attitude would have sabotaged our trust-building efforts completely. I remember one product manager crafting overly celebratory Slack messages about “being back and excited!” I said we gotta tone it down – we can celebrate later. Honesty and humility were key.

It was clear from my listening tours that we had to acknowledge what happened with Aladdin the first time around and show gratitude for our stakeholders’ patience. That acknowledgment and gratitude took just five or so minutes at the start of each enablement session. People understand that launches can fail despite our best efforts. They mainly wanted to hear: “We screwed up, we hear you, we’ll do better.”

Next, we had to prove that product improvements had been made – not just by telling them but by showing actual log files of fixed bugs, performance data, and scale/capacity gains.

Another key demand from my listening tour was “Don’t show pre-recorded demos. Demonstrate it live so we can be confident that this product actually works now.” So we did.

In addition to that, we were very transparent with our product roadmap. This was vital because the lack of transparency had caused so many issues in previous launches. We’d tell sales folks about the features that were planned for the next release cycle, they’d tell the customers, and then right when the release cycle was about to go live, product leaders would say, “Oh, I’m sorry, we had to change it.”

To rectify this, we made sure to set our future product roadmaps and releases in stone, providing some much-needed certainty. 

We also realized the importance of answering tough questions at the end of each session. The questions we received weren’t like, “How dare you?!” – they tended to be more technical. People wanted reassurance about the capabilities of the new and improved Aladdin. 

Last but not least, we made sure that our messaging matched up with reality – more on that in a sec. 

That, in a nutshell, is how we used our enablement sessions to rebuild trust with our sales teams. We tracked our success through audience surveys, consistently scoring 4.7 and above out of five. We were thrilled with these results, but we didn’t take them for granted; after each session, I made sure to follow up with key salespeople to ensure we hadn't missed anything.

A quick word on messaging

Let's dive into the topic of messaging, a critical area I focused on when I joined the project. 

My first step was conducting a messaging and positioning audit, and boy, did I uncover some insights! The main issue with our initial launch was a mismatch between our messaging and the actual product. It's tempting to point fingers at the product engineers, but let's be real – we in product marketing played our part in the confusion, too.

Here's what stood out to me: Firstly, our messaging was pretty outdated. It hadn’t been refreshed in two or three years. That wasn’t ideal; in a world where technology evolves rapidly, it’s wise to revisit your messaging at least once a year.

Secondly, it was kind of generic. Sometimes, we marketers get carried away trying to sound sophisticated and end up with vague phrases like “real-time customer experiences” or "unlock employee productivity." Sounds cool, but what does it really mean? Our messaging was littered with this kind of language.

Thirdly, accuracy was an issue. As I mentioned earlier, our product had some kinks, yet our messaging claimed it was fully functional. So, let's face it: our messaging was, well, a bit of a stretch from the truth.

I realized that to rebuild trust with our sales teams and customers, we needed to align our messaging with the reality of our product. 

So, I decided to start from scratch, casting aside the existing frameworks left by the previous team. I dived into researching our product, the industry, and even our competitors’ messaging strategies. After completing my initial research, I compiled all my findings into a draft of our new messaging positioning document. 

Then, I spent the next month closely collaborating with the product team. My key question to them was simple yet crucial: "Is this accurate? Can our product really do what we're saying here?" Together, we meticulously refined each message, ensuring it accurately reflected our product's capabilities. The collaboration was fantastic, but we didn't stop there.

After finalizing the first draft, I presented it to a select group of customers, including IT leaders and security buyers. Their feedback was invaluable, confirming that we were on target with relevant and resonant themes. This feedback boosted our confidence, assuring us that what we were about to launch was not only current and relevant but also accurate and honest.

The takeaway from this process is clear: if you're relaunching a product, particularly one that didn’t have the best start, it's critical to ensure every word in your marketing content aligns with the reality of what your product can deliver upon its general availability. We managed to do just that. 

Once we established this messaging framework, everything else fell into place. We seamlessly integrated this messaging across various platforms, from social media to external content and internal sales materials.

In my view, creating a marketing launch bill of materials is the straightforward part. The real challenge lies in crafting relevant and honest messaging to ensure that whenever a customer interacts with your brand, they receive a consistent and truthful message, regardless of the channel. This is the essence of effective and trustworthy product marketing.

Building momentum

So, we've sparked some excitement and confidence in our product and nailed down the messaging. Now, let's talk about how we achieved our second major goal: building momentum. 

To borrow an analogy, people often put so much effort into planning their wedding day that they overlook what comes after. Similarly, as product marketers, we can get so caught up in planning for the GA day that we neglect to plan for what happens post-launch. I didn't want our product to be a fleeting hit; I wanted it to be a top-of-mind choice for our customers and AEs for years to come.

The challenge was figuring out how to scale our product relaunch to drive sustainable revenue. To this end, my focus returned to our core AEs. 

Remember, core AEs are the account owners; they sell all Salesforce products and decide which ones to pitch to each account. More importantly, they need to be convinced about what to sell. In a large organization like Salesforce, an AE has hundreds of products to choose from when presenting to a customer.

Moreover, I had to consider the competition – not just external but also internal. With hundreds of other product marketers like myself trying to get their attention, convincing an AE to prioritize our product over others became crucial. It's about standing out in a crowded field and ensuring our product remains a priority for AEs amidst a sea of options.

Navigating the challenge of reaching every core AE at Salesforce was no small feat. In the Americas region, we have various business units focusing on industries like healthcare, finance, retail, consumer goods, communications, media, technology, and more. Each of these units is further divided into segments like enterprise, commercial, small businesses, and general business. 

The dilemma I faced was that each unit had hundreds, maybe even thousands, of AEs. It was impossible to personally reach out to every single one.

You might remember that we had those enablement sessions for the AEs. While they were effective, they only reached about 2 to 3% of the AE population. The big question was: how could I make our sales approach for this product scalable?

That’s when I discovered a key role within our GTM operations: the sales program manager. These managers are the gatekeepers in each business unit, deciding which products their teams will focus on each quarter. They create sales plays and activations and guide their teams' focus. 

To get in front of the core AEs, I needed to convince these sales program managers that Aladdin was worth paying attention to. Working with sales folks is pretty straightforward – you just have to show them the money. Show them the revenue potential of your product. 

But I couldn't just tell them, “Sell our product. It'll make money.” I needed a compelling business case. This case included customer use cases, pricing models, value propositions compared to competitors, target customers, ideal customer criteria, and customer events for AEs to invite their customers to. I had to come fully prepared because these managers are sharp and well aware of any past controversies.

One by one, I managed to persuade the sales program managers of this opportunity's potential. As my credibility grew with each manager, they began inviting me to their business unit activations. This allowed me to enable the salespeople in their organizations, educating them about the value of our product. 

So, what happened?

Aladdin went into GA a few weeks ago, and let me tell you, the results were nothing short of impressive. In just the first week, we generated about $1 million in revenue and built a sales pipeline of about $70 million. 

This is huge! It clearly shows how much the salespeople have embraced the idea of selling Salesforce Aladdin. Even better, 80% of all the core AEs have incorporated it into their quarterly sales play strategy. 

This success wasn't just a stroke of luck. It was the result of actively listening to our stakeholders and deeply understanding Salesforce’s Go-to-Market model. 

Here are some of the biggest lessons I learned from this experience:

🤗 Embrace the opportunity of a product relaunch, especially if it's mired in controversy. It's a valuable learning experience.

👂 Listen to those impacted by the earlier failed launch. That gives you a clear roadmap for a successful relaunch. 

🎩 Leading with honesty and humility is crucial. 

👯 Matching your messaging with the product reality is vital. 

🤝 Winning over the sales gatekeepers is a game-changer. They're the ones who can help you scale your impact significantly.

So, whether you're gearing up for your first product launch or have a few under your belt and are looking for new insights, I hope you’ve found value in my story. 

Let me close by saying that product relaunches are challenging, but they're incredibly rewarding. Execute them well, and they can supercharge your career, taking you to new heights. It's a journey worth embarking on!