When Tech Brands Pivot, Marketers Must Sell the Changes With Aplomb

Just Dance is the latest challenged by disruption

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The wand-waving and arm-flapping that defined a Wii-inspired generation of gamers are going out of vogue—and that's a problem for Just Dance. The video game built up a following of 54 million users who depended on motion-control technology—which game consoles from manufacturers like Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox no longer bundle for free. So like any good tech marketer, Just Dance has adapted to the disruption with a feature to fill the void, launching a mobile app that lets consumers boogie down while using their iPhone or Samsung Galaxy.

To generate awareness for the app, on Oct. 20 the brand will begin a crucial, 10-week appeal going into the holidays, encompassing TV spots and a slew of video ads on sites like Facebook and BuzzFeed, as well as custom promos for Snapchat and Instagram.

"This is really the first time we've had a campaign that led with a product-feature message," said Linda Murphy, senior brand manager at Just Dance parent Ubisoft. "And our challenge there is explaining how you use [the app] to play the game." The app, she added, "turns the phone into its own remote control. You keep it in your hand, and it's really as simple as that."

Murphy and her team's challenge—getting attention-deficit video game players to take the time to both download the app and learn how to use it—seems anything but simple. And it underscores an overlooked plight of the modern marketer: taking on the thankless job of making sense of product changes and selling them to a mass audience.

Toby Southgate, global CEO of consultancy Brand Union, noted that setting the right course for pivots—be it altering the user experience, the sales channel, the advertising message or even just a name change—can be tricky. "If the product itself changes, so will the brand," he said. "So many of my clients in tech, that's where they live right now," echoed Larry Woodard, president of Graham Stanley Advertising. "It can put a company very, very much at risk."

Just ask well-funded startups like Color, Airtime, AdKeeper, Clinkle and others who all ultimately faded into oblivion. A perfect example is textPlus, a popular chatting app from a half decade ago. According to mobile-data company App Annie, in 2011, Marina del Rey, Calif.-based textPlus ranked 160th for overall iPhone downloads and seventh for the lifestyle category. Then it shifted gears and became an app for free WiFi phone calls and other functions, and plummeted in ranking. Today, App Annie places it 585 for overall iPhone downloads and 31 for the utilities category. TextPlus didn't respond to inquiries.

Not all fail at a new iteration. YouSendIt, a digital service targeting multimedia creators to exchange files that were too large for regular email, is a good example. The San Francisco firm rebranded as Hightail, while also adding a bevy of project-collaboration features to its product offering. "From a marketing standpoint, we had some apprehension about it," admitted Michael Trigg, Hightail COO. "We wondered, 'How is this going to go?'"

Trigg, who was CMO at the time, bought search ads and developed landing pages and a video to educate the marketplace about the pivot. In the end, it worked.

Trigg said revenue has grown significantly to $50 million annually. "It was a nontrivial investment to make that change happen," he said. "I talked to other companies that went through similar transitions and saw their traffic really dip. And we didn't see that at all—strong traffic throughout."

Lastly, Just Dance's marketers will definitely cut a rug if their mobile-app makeover succeeds. Check out one of the brand's TV spots from the aforementioned campaign below. 

This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.