Smithsonian for Stinkers

9780812932034Apparently you and I have a superpower. At least, that’s what uninformed writers, and informed ones with no regard for facts where profit is concerned, would have readers believe. Said superpower is the ability to make people buy whether they want to or not.

If you have worked in marketing for more than 20 seconds, you don’t need me to tell you that there is no such superpower. If there were, more new products would fly than flop, and I’d be rich. In fact, more products flop than fly and, more important, I’m not rich.

If you’re ever in Ithaca, New York, I suggest a visit to the New Products Showcase and Learning Center. (If Ithaca isn’t on your itinerary, there’s a book. More on that in a moment.) Dubbed by Business Week the “Smithsonian for Stinkers,” it’s a place where you can wander amid rows of failed products like Campbell’s Creamy Natural Soup, Listerine Cool Mint toothpaste, Jergen’s Body Shampoo, Crystal Pepsi, and others. Successful products are also on display, but the failed ones vastly outnumber and are frankly more fun. And each sad example packs a valuable marketing lesson.

One lesson is that sometimes there’s no telling how the public will greet your innovation until you take the plunge and put it out there where people can buy it—or not. Every failed product on display was backed by the best marketing minds in the business and thoroughly researched and tested before its dismal debut and eventual demise.

Another, related lesson is that there’s no need to go full-scale until you know you have a hit. Products that were rushed to national distribution and given whopping advertising budgets could have quietly and less expensively failed in test markets.

There’s also a lesson buried in the number of failures that bear a striking resemblance to earlier failures. Had the creators of the former troubled to familiarize themselves with the latter, they might have avoided costly and embarrassing flops. Something about, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana, philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist, 1863-1952).

The New Products Showcase and Learning Center is the brainchild and work of 30-year marketing industry veteran Robert M. McMath. I haven’t been able to find out if the Center is still open, but not to worry: McMath teamed with former Adweek editorial director Thom Forbes to produce the delightful book, What Were They Thinking: Marketing Lessons You Can learn from Products That Flopped. It’s not a new book—it was first published in 1998—but I highly recommend it, no less for the fun read than for the valuable information.

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