The hourglass design: redesigning the launch process

Steve Sammartino redesigns the launch process, arguing that the success of a launch can naturally be powered by the ingredients that went into it, allowing marketers to focus on creating great products, rather than throwing money at promotion.


Marketing language

Language is an interesting thing. It shapes our views more than we know. When we hear people’s words, if we listen hard enough, we can see into their souls. Let’s take the word ‘marketing’ as an example. Ask any layperson what it is and they’ll refer to advertising, the promotional side of our craft, possibly with some reference to brands or logos. We also hear this whenever the media refer to the marketing of anything – according to them, it’s all about promotion and influence, not the process of ‘going to market’, which, in reality, is what marketers do. We design the factors of production to create a profit, financial or social.

It’s not surprising that this has happened. Language is itself a living organism that changes and evolves – it’s alive. The meaning of words changes based on how they are interpreted. And marketing is a victim of this lingual reality. I say the word ‘victim’, because it has put false limitations around the marketing process. Subtly and slowly, it has taken away the tools and levers marketers should be playing with to create something people really want. In one sense we have forgotten the true meaning of what we ought be doing as marketers. It has redesigned the focus of the marketing process to a limited viewpoint. A viewpoint that is largely promotional. A viewpoint that is largely about incremental improvement. And, mostly, a viewpoint that has a launch mentality.

If we had to lay any blame on this situation, it should probably be on ourselves.

Our most powerful tool in the 50 years after World War II was mass media. Brands with big budgets generally won the pop culture war through sheer weight of voice. Great advertising, in some ways, became a substitute for great product. Average things designed for the masses could masquerade as objects of desire because our exposure to the possibilities was so limited in a pre-internet age. Availability was a function of what we saw on TV and in-store.

The model of product development was a simple one. Make more of what you made before, and create great packaging and advertisements.

It worked. But in the 20 years since 1995, our marketplace – that place where we do that thing called marketing – has had a radical redesign.


Experiments in marketing

This brings me to a side project I did a recently. The project was an experiment to see what is possible in our emerging business landscape.

The project itself was to build a fullsize car, made entirely of Lego. Which no one had ever done before. Of course, this in itself sounds kind of cool, but there is much more too it than that. Let me lay out some of the other ingredients that went into making this project possible:

  • The car was driveable (though hardly street legal),
  • the engine was made entirely from standard Lego pieces,
  • the engine was powered entirely by air,
  • the project was crowd-funded on Twitter with a single tweet (it was even too radical for the crowdfunding websites),
  • it was built with a teenage tech genius who lives in Romania – we met through common interests on the web,
  • all the digital tools we used to organise and build the project didn’t exist 10 years ago (think communications forums, design software, money transfer portals etc), and
  • it was launched with zero marketing budget, via a single tweet and an upload to YouTube.

Oh, and we called it the Super Awesome Micro Project – to add some geeky quirkiness to it. I could go on with more of what we put ‘in’ that made it unique and web worthy, but you get the picture.

While it took more than 18 months to build, many sleepless nights and more money than any grown man should ever spend on toy pieces, it blew up on launch – figuratively, not literally.

In fact, there actually was no launch. We loaded up a YouTube video and sent a single tweet pointing to it. The market did the rest. What spread wasn’t just what we made, but the backstory of ingredients that made it significant.

The launch process itself was more about handing over the product to the market place and saying, “Hhere it is – we built this for you, and we hope you like it”.

It turned out to be a global hit. We are six million views and counting on YouTube. (Just Google the term ‘Lego car’). And it has been viewed more than 100 million times around the world on mainstream media.



But what happened after was in some ways more interesting: the product evolved into new subsequent launches. Opportunities have arisen around the ingredients that went into the product, from licensing the technology we developed to funding the tech genius who built it, to a documentary on the Discovery channel.


The hourglass launch strategy

It was only after the project that I realised it represented the shape of a new emerging marketing regime. A new shape for marketing programs to launch under – a redesign of the marketing process that replicated a change in our commercial world.

This new process can be represented by the shape of an hourglass.


breakout from steve sammartino blog


The funnel has long been the visual marketing reference of how to launch a product. First, the funnel was referenced for wide-birth marketing and communications campaigns of multimedia output, all pointing at a single product. Then, in the early days of the web, we spoke of having brand fans and evangelists promoting our wares for us.

We then flipped the funnel and gave voice to those we did business with, but still did all of the building ourselves.

But both of these launching methods feel too limited to me. Good launches now look like an hourglass in shape. I call it the ‘hourglass launch strategy’.

The hourglass doesn’t just represent what we do. It should be a template for both human capital and financial capital in any launch – effort and budget. The Super Awesome Micro Project had a launch budget of exactly zero dollars. The dollars and

effort went into making something worthy.

For such a long time the most powerful brands in the world have done the opposite. A cost-cutting mindset has led to a process of minimising inputs and ingredients.

Marketers would be asked to find ways to remove parts, bits, commodities and processes, largely so that the brands could win the share of voice battle with other average launches, which most often become commercial wallpaper.

But the hourglass design is informative: it reminds us what we really need to do to succeed today.

In simple terms, we need a lot of inputs that are notable – things worth talking about, points of interest.

We invest our capital into producing these and shift our investments that would historically go into launch and promotion costs back into the thing we are delivering to the market. This is the top half of the hourglass.

This is the stuff that really matters in a world of excess supply and a connected populace.

Then we launch the product itself. We take it to the market as it is, in its pure, natural state.

The energy is focused on a single point of interest or distribution. The point where the sand is released is the launch itself. And just like the hourglass, its energy will be a function of how much sand (product and design input) is behind it.

And, once it is released, the market decides how worthy the product is of its attention, time, spreading, interpreting, mashing-up or even that other financial implication, actually purchasing the product. If what we’ve taken to the market is deserving, its

exposure widens. The market takes it to the places it deserves to be, not only from a communication and awareness perspective, but very often from a distribution and collaboration perspective as well.

The attention it earns opens up commercial opportunities as the connected world seeks out methods to leverage the output. People arrive on our digital doorstep wishing to distribute it, sell it, license it, adapt it and build it. The number of amazing outputs post-launch are the metaphorical equivalent of the number of amazing inputs we put into it pre-launch, which is something a heavy promotion campaign will never deliver.

If marketers focus more energy on creating something amazing, and less on trying to tell an amazing story about an average product, they’d find they get more attention. They’d save a lot of promotion dollars.


Fat-end market dynamics

New market dynamics now feed on the fat ends of the hourglass.

Our audience has everything they need in terms of necessities. Because we live in a world of excess supply, people now feed on what went into something, not the thing itself. Where are the coffee beans from and who roasted them? Is the company a ‘B’ corporation with altruistic objectives that help more than the shareholders? The backstory matters more than ever ever in a world of excess supply and global availability of most everything.

The wider the inputs, the wider the appeal.

And, this applies just as much in the post-launch marketplace. People are no longer consumers; they don’t want to receive what someone else sells them. They want to interpret, mash up and contribute to a product that is unfinished.

The future is about designing unfinished products on purpose. The world we live in now is about handing the brand back over to its rightful owners, the audience. Companies believe they own their brands, but in reality they don’t. The brand is owned by the people who feed it, just as a family dog depends on its household for sustenance. A brand depends on those who purchase it. If we stop feeding a brand, the brand dies. People are now telling us that they want to help create the things they use. There is a clear shift towards people preferring products that are not finished. They want products where they get involved in the making process. Everything from slow food to high‐end technology is transitioning to the malleable marketplace.


The malleable marketplace

Today the best technology devices arrive with the need for our input. Even better, they arrive with an open door for tinkerers and garage heroes to show us what they’re capable of. They’re designed to be reconfigured by the end user, to be customised. The malleable marketplace allows people to play in the metaphorical sandbox of the hourglass: the ingredients we’ve launched around.

Our phones are a canvas for our own creation and the imagination of others in the market. No two smartphones end up with the same configuration once they’re active in the market – they change based on the end user.

No Google search is the same; it depends on the end user. And Wikipedia is built by using a platform we’ve been given. What we’ve seen on the web, we can expect to enter the physical ‘product and services’ world of traditional marketing.

So marketers need to redesign their efforts. We need to move beyond thinking we are the arbiters of what ‘good’ looks like, and instead hand over the brand tools to our audience to collaborate with. We need to outsource the post-launch potential and do more than design a launch and instead design something that gets finished in market where the prize is shared with those who invest in us: the brand stewards.



Steve Sammartino
BY Steve Sammartino ON 12 May 2015
Steve has been involved in the marketing and communications arena for over 15 years. His entrepreneurial ventures include, an air-powered car made of Lego and Aussie automotive start-up Tomcar. His blog, is one of Australia’s most-followed business blogs. His blog, is the most-followed start-up/entrepreneur blog in the world. His book 'The Great Fragmentation: And Why the Future of All Business is Small' is out now.