What Startups Can Learn from the Great Bubble Wrap Blowup

The Bubble Everyone Wants to Burst

What Startups Can Learn from the Great Bubble Wrap Blowup…

This past week, Sealed Air Corp., the original seller of Bubble Wrap®, rolled out a new version of its flagship product: a new packaging material called iBubble that took up one-fiftieth of the space of the traditional wrap, but lacked one key feature: it didn’t pop.

It was a smart solution to a packaging storage problem that, pun intended, blew up in their face. But it was a move that had even their key media questioning its wisdom. As a possible lesson to tech startups, what might Sealed Air have considered first?

Consider your entire “chain of users,” not just a single target.

In the eyes of Sealed Air, their target was the packagers when, in fact, the audience included those who received the bubble-wrapped items. Forgetting that audience was their single biggest mistake, especially considering Sealed Air is perfectly aware that Bubble Wrap has a cult following. Bubble Wrap “has transformed into an unexpected pop culture icon, becoming most recognized for the satisfying release that comes with the popping of each bubble,” said Sealed Air president William Hickey in 2012.

Sealed Air’s clear product awareness- coupled with the fact that a Facebook group dedicated to those who like popping bubble wrap has over 500,000 followers- should have informed their product strategy. Sealed Air should have been sensitive to the many people with a deep-seated affinity for the traditional product outside of the packaging community.

Changes to long-standing brands rarely work today without engaging your target audience first.

Brand history is littered with examples of times when consumers should have been consulted first. From New Coke to Harley Davidson perfume, brand “surprises” rarely succeed. Today’s prosumers like to feel like they are being included in the decision-making. For Sealed Air, a smarter move might have been to engage their audience spectrum to explore solutions that would improve Bubble Wrap, then introduce the new solution as a result. Doritos is now expanding their product offerings by first soliciting crowd-sourced ideas for new flavors, then market-testing a winning few to see which work in the real world. The benefits are terrific: a multi-stage series of PR events, passionate and engaged consumers who have a sense of ownership, and potential product line expansion into a ready-made market.

Be sensitive to all brand dimensions.

Two of the most compelling aspects of Bubble Wrap are its touch and sound. Losing this is losing part of the brand experience. The compressed air “pop” of a can of soda being opened… the “snap” of a Kit-Kat bar… these are also subtle dimensions of the brand experience. Audio branding is particularly critical in the app world; the unique notification “ping” you create may be just as valuable as the user interface you design.

Be crystal-clear when making a major product change.

What was lost in transmission was that Sealed Air wasn’t discontinuing its classic Bubble Wrap, but simply adding a new product. However, they didn’t underscore and emphasize that fact enough. Sealed Air could have stated “This will not replace our popular classic Bubble Wrap” and even marshaled some consumers to support the change in a fun way by creating two camps of Bubble Wrap supporters ( “pro-pops” versus “no-pops”).

Unfortunately, they instead chose to clarify the news via social media after the negative feedback exploded on the Web. When the shouts of social media dismay started, their explanation was drowned out in the virtual outcry. The marketing take-away here is thorough planning up front can prevent problems like this. A second lesson is that the social media universe is much more interested in stating their opinions than in listening to what the source has to say…It’s just more fun that way.

And finally, choose your product name wisely.

Sealed Air went with iBubble for their new more efficient, space-saving product. We’re assuming the “I” refers to inflatable because packagers can blow up the new flat Bubble Wrap for shipping purposes, but seriously… resorting to the overused iAnything? iNough.

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