For every new product on our supermarket shelves there are 10 consigned to the reject bin. But where do brands go to die?As any rocketeer will tell you, a successful launch is critical to success, but nowhere is that truism more appropriate than in the cut-throat world of marketing. Whilst it may not be rocket science, the division between success and failure here is equally as stark. Step forward the Museum of Failed Products, an anti-supermarket which occupies a niche spot at odds with the piped music, yellow lit, temples to consumerism we’re all familiar with. Contrary to appearances, our supermarkets are awash with success; their shelves lined with products which have demonstrated their appeal to the masses and proven their ability to convince shoppers to part with their cash. But big brands, once ensconced, are difficult to dislodge, and paint a very incomplete picture of the product ecosystem, which is where the Museum comes in. Creation of Robert McMath, a former marketing man intent on creating a reference library of when consumer goods go bad, the storehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan has been on the go since the 1960s when McMath (since followed by his successors at GfK Custom Research) started buying samples of every new product to come to market. As a sort of latter day Noah, McMath bought one of every single new product he could lay his hands on for the ultimate time capsule.As the industry’s own benchmark failure rate of 90 per cent attests, this is literally a collection of rubbish, but McMath wasn’t off his shopping trolley. So expansive is his collection that the stock has since achieved a lustre brought by rarity it could never achieve in ubiquity. The resulting graveyard of entombed plastic, cardboard and paper still wears the jaunty optimism of expected success on its sleeves. From the confident primary colours of Kick, the caffeinated beer, to the smiling ‘Incre-Edibles’ family slurping microwaveable scrambled eggs for perpetuity, these embalmed figures have achieved defacto immortality for their troubles, their plastic gravestones likely to outlast all but the hardiest nonbiodegradable detritus for the next thousand years. Where the storehouse succeeds is in finally making a success of these assorted failures by capturing the full diversity of the weird and wonderful creations dreamed up by product design businesses. It proves that the retail sphere is just as brutal as the natural world with the death, blood and decay evident in the natural world reflected in the cancellation, losses and pulping of the many abortive launch attempts. Like present day anthropologists, modern marketers are flocking to this grisly scene in a bid to avoid similar fate, spurred by the realisation that in order to be successful, you can’t just study success. But it isn’t simply because these items failed, it’s because their backers were convinced they would be a success. Understanding the wayward processes and flawed thinking that gave birth to caffeinated beer means you’re best placed to avoid a similar pitfall – if we never learn from our mistakes, we are destined to repeat them. Accentuating the positive qualities of his charge, the museum’s current custodian David Stanton, VP of marketing communications at GfK, told The Drum: “Our collection is not of ‘failed products’, but rather of innovations in packaging and marketing; we use it with clients for ideation and inspiration, and it includes many items that have been successful.” Half a century of acquisitions later and McMath’s magpie-like tendencies have paid off handsomely, it seems. It is clear, though, that for all the lessons learned, failure is still an option and if the museum is to avoid the fate which befell its contents over the next 50 years, it will need to diversify. In marketing, as in nature, not everyone can be successful, but at least with the resource we can at least lower the odds of repeating mistakes. By eschewing grand works of art for the humdrum detritus which litters our everyday lives, the museum in many ways speaks more tellingly about us as a society than the greatest works of a niche creative class ever could. Perhaps we would all benefit from a tour of these aisles of failure; we might just feel a bit more optimistic as a result.
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