Mindlab’s Museum of Failed Products
By Duncan Smith
Every year, millions of products flood the market trying to be the next big thing.
But not everything can be the new iPhone or Playstation.
In fact, at least three-quarters of new products end up failing – despite often extensive market research, mammoth marketing and tightly crossed fingers.
We’ve looked at thirteen unlucky products and rebrands that didn’t work to see what can be learnt from them today.
Which product failed because the technology wasn’t opened up for others to use? And which company found out that sex doesn’t always sell?
In 2009, Tropicana went from their standard packaging of a fresh looking orange to favour a more minimalist look of a glass of juice. This was a simple rebrand that was very quickly recalled just 50 days later but not before sales of the juice fell 20%, costing the company tens of millions of dollars. Most of the drop in sales was due to people not recognising the new design as Tropicana. There was also a semiotic element to this failure: the original design with a straw in a round orange had associations of ‘juicy’, which was not evoked as strongly by the tall glass on the new design. If Tropicana had tested the design’s associations and brand-fit beforehand, they may have reconsidered its use. If they had then still decided to change the design, they should have done so incrementally so as to not break the law of just-noticeable difference (the amount of change at which people notice a difference).
In 2013, Google released their prototype Google Glass to anyone willing to shell out $1,500 to become an ‘explorer’. They had impressive marketing and an amazing idea that looked like the future but it turned out the product was unfinished. A wave of negative publicity and feedback killed Google Glass in its tracks despite what it could have become. The main issue here was related to privacy – people didn’t like feeling that this product was filming them. This was exaggerated because people already had privacy concerns about Google. Another possible factor was that the glasses may have induced fear through making people look less human/part-cyborg, especially since it partially covers one of the eyes (with the eyes providing a lot of information about our emotional state). The product was ahead of its time and a lack of familiarity makes people uncomfortable. Combine these factors in an age where people are particularly privacy-conscious and you have a recipe for fear. As a result, Google Glass separated people into social groups: non-Google Glass users and Google Glass users (often unaffectionately referred to as “Glassholes”). This led to group polarisation where non-glass users started to form extreme views about Glass users. Google Glass will come back at some point (possibly soon) but probably for use on the factory floor where privacy is less of a personal concern.
Colgate Frozen Dinners
When you think of Colgate, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Toothpaste. Minty, fresh, pasty toothpaste. That’s a fair image to be constructed by the name of the largest toothpaste provider in the world. Why then would Colgate decide that the natural extension of the brand would be to frozen dinner entrees? It creates the image of dinner that somehow cares for your teeth, which wasn’t the case, and doesn’t even sound appetizing. The push for people to enjoy their brand during and after dinner actually meant that their toothpaste sales fell at the same time.
Cheetos Cheese flavoured lip balm
Research has shown that one of the joys of eating Cheetos is getting your fingers covered in cheesy dust. It’s apparently called Cheetle and Frito-Lay even erected a statue in October 2022 in Cheadle, Alberta Canada to commemorate it (pictured at the top of this article).
So who wouldn’t want a Cheetle lip balm you may ask? In 2005 the cheesy lip balm was launched and, surprise surprise, it garnered so many negative reviews it was quickly discontinued.
That however is not the end of the story. People often champion the absurdity of terrible ideas so it has now been relaunched but with a sensible orange flavour. I do love an Amazon UK review of the new product from Zoe that stated “…being a huge Cheetos fan I thought I could have those stolen moments, in between reaching for a Cheeto whilst gaming, to lick my lips instead. So how disappointed am I that it’s a delightful orange flavour?”
Harley Davidson Perfume
This was a bit of a reach for the Harley Davidson Company, a group famous for its strong brand following. They overstretched the brand in the nineties with branded wine coolers, aftershaves and perfumes. Even the most loyal fans didn’t like the idea. They wanted strong bikes and accessories that went along with that. Perfumes and wine coolers did not reinforce their strong ideals of rugged road freedom. Women were not attracted because the perfume tried to play to the rugged brand, and men weren’t on board because scents were too feminine for them. What did it smell like, diesel? Fresh tarmac?
Coors had been selling its light variety of beer since 1978. In 1990, they decided to make an even lighter drink, Coors Rocky Mountain Sparkling Water, as an attempt to break into the booming bottled water industry. It was labelled and bottled similarly to the beer which caused confusion within the brand. People just weren’t ready to buy water from a beer company and the trademark was cancelled in 1997.
New Coke was released in March 1985 replacing the tried-and-tested regular coke with the first formula change in 99 years. It was meant to re-energize the Coca-Cola brand as its share lead over Pepsi had been slipping for 15 years. However, because of the generations of continuity between Coke and its classic flavour, consumers were not ready for this to be tampered with and were outraged with the change. After the public firestorm in which Coca Cola received over 400,000 letters and calls of complaint, they returned to the original recipe in July 1985, just 79 days after the change. This was a case of loss-aversion – people care considerably more about losses than gains. The loss in this case was the original Coke that consumers had become very familiar with. Although the taste of New Coke was better liked in taste-tests, the benefits from this new taste were not strong enough to outweigh the loss of the original product. Consumer testing was also conducted by asking people to drink small amounts but when people drank larger amounts such as a whole can, they found the product to be too sweet.
Cosmopolitan magazine asked their readers whether they liked edibles in the bedroom. When a majority (65%) replied “yes”, the brand decided to provide the edibles. Cosmo features sex tips and Cosmo sells. So “Sex Sells” was also the theory behind the marketing efforts for their yoghurt. However, there was a clear disconnect between what they were selling them as (sophisticated yoghurts) and what they expected them to be used for (ahem). The yoghurts were on the shelf for 18 months before they were discontinued. Cosmopolitan assumed that people’s answers in a survey would reflect their purchasing intent in the real world. There were also confusing and tenuous associations between the brand and product – ‘yoghurt’ and ‘magazines’.
Although the Betamax was a technologically superior product to VHS in some ways, this was not enough to sway consumers towards it. It lost the format war due to the “whole product model”. This states that people don’t make a decision between two items purely on technological differences. In fact, success is based on additional features such as expansion capabilities and potential for future development. Added to that, there were more VHS tapes in shops, they were cheaper and you could record an entire film on one.
To succeed in a battle with the iPod, Microsoft’s Zune had to disrupt by being both cheaper and better. But while it was slightly cheaper, it was by no means better. And why would anyone who already had an iPod get a Zune? Apple also locked their users in by forcing iTunes on their customers and therefore making their music only compatible with one format. After a five year battle, the Zune was discontinued in 2011. Part of the issue here is that the iPod came first and therefore became the benchmark. Since the Zune was not a radically different product, the perceived benefits of buying a Zune did not outweigh the costs of going away from the social norm. People went with the crowd for the iPod (and the Apple brand), fulfilling our need to belong. You were seen as ‘out of the crowd’ if you purchased the Zune. This feeling of needing to be in the ‘in-group’ was further strengthened by the iPod’s design and marketing, which made it seem like a particularly ‘cool’ product and one that people wanted to be associated with.
In 2000, Heinz created their first coloured ketchup, ‘Blastin’ Green’, to support the first Shrek movie. This was originally successful but children have short attention spans and soon eating Shrek-coloured ketchup wasn’t fun. Heinz were left with a sickly green coloured sauce. Two years later, they tried again but the brand was a novelty idea, and never destined to last. It came off the shelves after a respectable run of six years.
Bottled Pet Water
People spend a lot of money on their pets but they have to be sold on the product. The Thirsty Dog! and Thirsty Cat! products came in ‘thirst-quenching’ flavours like crispy beef and tangy fish. But no one really wants to buy beef or fish water. It was so unappetising to the buyer that it didn’t have much demand. Customers also didn’t see the health effects it promised compared to tap water and so stopped paying for it.
Clairol released the sensual ‘Touch of Yoghurt’ shampoo in 1974 following its, also unsuccessful, ‘look of buttermilk’ range. Just the sound of the product name evokes the feeling of putting yoghurt in your hair which isn’t particularly pleasant. Yoghurt was a trendy new food at the time but it had never been associated with haircare or toiletries and the idea of soured milk in people’s hair did not seem enticing. Would kale laundry powder sound good now?
In most of these cases, the failure was mostly due to dissonance between the new product and the associations people currently have with the brand. For example, people associate Colgate with words such as ‘mint’, ‘toothpaste’ and ‘fresh’. However, add ‘beef lasagne’ into the mix and you imagine the taste of mint toothpaste-flavoured beef lasagne: obviously not an appealing prospect. Regardless of how much consumers liked these brands, these new products created jarring associations which caused consumers to reject them. These brands were behaving slightly irrationally, acting idealistically based on how they wanted their brand to be perceived, rather than realistically on how the brand was actually perceived by consumers.
In the case of many of these failed products, people working at the companies probably experienced groupthink, where the desire for harmony within a group leads to poor decision making, for example through being overly-optimistic and not expressing doubts. There is also flawed market research to add to the mix. In the case of new Coke, executives ignored the strongly negative feelings of a significant proportion of respondents. They dismissed 10-12% of tasters who were going to stop drinking Coke as a result of the product change. Brands such as Coke have personality and are more than a list of physical attributes. Focusing on the single attribute of taste was a risky venture.
It is also likely that many of these companies suffered from the planning fallacy – they took on a high-risk project, giving confidence to the best-case scenario without fully considering the worst-case scenario.
Of course, failure isn’t always a bad thing and it can lead to great success. Read more on how to fail well in our article with Barney Whiter from The School of Life.