As many entrepreneurs know, speed to market is critical. That's why many startups embrace the Minimum Viable Product philosophy, creating a new product with the minimum number of features (or sophistication) that allows them to gather the maximum amount of information about customer needs, desires, and tastes.
Others just want to be first, knowing that where customer mind-share is concerned, second might as well be last.
And then there are companies that take rapidity to extremes, like Panini, the sports card company that makes limited edition cards available the day after a major or notable sporting event takes place.
For example (and as you'll see in a moment), that means within a handful of hours after games like the NFC and AFC Championships, limited edition cards are available for collectors and enthusiasts--for just 24 hours--from Panini Instant. And to celebrate the two Super Bowl teams, Panini will make Instant cards available from January 27 to the Super Bowl and will feature 24 players per team. (That's a departure from the normal process...but hey, it is the Super Bowl.) They will also produce a Panini Instant set celebrating the Super Bowl champions with key performances from the game.
The philosophy behind that kind of speed to market is one thing; it's another to develop systems and processes that can pull it off, time after time. To find out how Panini does it, I talked with Jason Howarth, vice president of marketing for Panini America.
Production speed clearly matters, but so does your ability to make instant decisions about what fans will want--and want to buy.
You're right. We're really fast.
Keep in mind, though, that we have around 100 different products from a trading card perspective. As far as sports go, you name it and we have it. So we've taken all that experience and expertise and transferred it to the Panini Instant platform.
The goal is to celebrate top performances and special moments almost as they happen. That does mean we have to make quick decisions, but it's not as hard as you think: We leave that up to the players and teams. When they do something special...everyone knows it.
So give me a real world example of how the process for Instant works.
It all starts with the games. Our team watches and keeps track of performances...and as soon as the games are over, we decide which players are in the mix for a Panini Instant card.
Then a lot of things happen at once. We submit the idea to our pre-press, design, photography, and editorial teams. Photography starts pulling images from the actual game. Editorial works on writing about what is special about the performance, highlighting more than just statistics...and design works to pull all that together.
Once we have everything ready, we submit the card to pre-press and production, they build the card...and then we submit a proof of the finished product to the League and Player's Association involved for their approval.
I would imagine getting approvals in a timely fashion is tough.
Actually that's not the case. We've been doing Instant for some time and the leagues know that they may have proofs in their inboxes when they get to work the next day, if not sooner. They know the players appreciate the attention and that the fans love it, so they do their thing really quickly, usually within hours.
Also keep in mind we work with the leagues as official licensees, so we already have solid relationships in place. Instant is just an extension of those relationships.
For example, we've been the exclusive trading card partner of the NBA since 2009. That counts for something. We had to walk them through this process, but unbeknownst to us, we had a season of training because we have a digital trading card app for the NBA that we launched last year, and one of the packs that was available in the Panini Dunk App was the Panini Player of the Day, highlighting one player based on statistical analysis. That meant we've already worked with the NBA on a process similar to what we use for Instant.
So once we have approvals, we put the cards on our website and they're available to the public.
Player's Association approvals are obviously important, but in your business, so are your relationships with individual players.
On the NFL side, Panini has been a partner since they acquired the assets of Donruss Trading Cards. We have a license through the NFL and NFLPA (NFL Player's Association), and this year we're exclusive.
So we did have existing relationships, and that creates a level of comfort.
But we work really hard to develop relationships with new players. We start really early. We start building relationships every January, when they declare for the draft, if they haven't already. We'll do stuff with them at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, at the NFL Combine...all before they're even drafted and know where they're going to go. Then, once they're drafted, we'll do rookie photo shoots in L.A.
We build those relationships very early on so they have an understanding of how we operate, what we do, our goals and objectives...and so they know that what we love to do is highlight them and their performances.
Take a guy like Ezekiel Elliott--we've had a relationship with him from the very beginning, before he took the football world by surprise. The same is true for Dak Prescott. We've featured both of them this year, and I hope we get to do that a lot more times in the future.
The nature of the product means you don't have a lot of time to market new cards.
The first introduction of Instant was with the European Cup [soccer] and the NBA Finals.
As soon as the Cavs won the NBA championship, we got the cards approved and worked with the Cavs to highlight the fact those cards were available. Teams often help us spread the word because we're highlighting special performances.
But you're right. We only make the cards available for a 24-hour window. There's a limited time to get them, and then the opportunity is gone.
We basically create three versions of an Instant card: a 1-of-1 version, where we only print one; a 1-of-10 version; and a base version that is only available for 24 hours--if 500 people purchase that card, we only print 500. On each card, the images are the same but the backgrounds and design are different, so that each version stands out.
I can see the appeal to fans, but I would think players love the idea.
I was talking with [former NFL running back] Ricky Williams at the College Football National Championship game, and we were talking about how prior to Instant, when a player had a key performance, a card commemorating it wouldn't be available for at least four to six months. He said, "I would have loved to have gotten a card of my back-to-back 200-yard rushing games. That would have been awesome."
You're right. It does resonate with the players, too. We've shared some of those moments with a number of players. It's funny: No matter how big a star certain players may be, they're always excited when they see their face on a trading card.
Sports cards speak to the kid in all of us.
How does your Instant platform support and maybe even extend your more traditional product line?
For people who collect, it's a way to expand that base. And it's also a way to engage a more "casual" collector. Either way, Instant helps reinforce our core products. If you go to a game, watch a game, want to celebrate that moment...it's perfect. If I'm a Celtics fan, which I am, I would love to have a card commemorating the day I took my kids to their first Celtics game. The card represents a special day in their lives, and in my life.
And as for collectors, and the collector base that is making an investment, scarcity and exclusivity is huge.
But really it's about growing and expanding the category, and engaging all the fans who walk into a stadium or arena and want to memorialize the moment. Whether you're a card collector or not, for sports fans...that stuff touches you and has an impact on you.
What is the most challenging part of constantly producing such a quick turnaround?
The easy part is relying on players to do amazing things. The hard part is the process: how quickly you can create awesome designs, make people aware of the products we create.... It's pretty complex, and we're still learning.
But it's worth it. Think about the stories you read every year about companies that produce championship hats and T-shirts that are available after a game. They hedge their bets, printing versions for each team.
We wait until the game is over. We wait until something happens, and then we go into action. That's harder, but it's a lot more rewarding.