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Welcome to the Museum of Failure, where brand fuck-ups combat the world’s glut of success stories

Rest in peace, Betamax

In Sweden’s Helsingborg, a coastal city 40 minutes north of Mälmo, there is a building that houses a menagerie of bad brand decisions. A Sony Betamax recorder sits alongside Trump: The Board Game, while Coke II resides next to a forlorn DVD case from Blockbuster.

This is the Museum of Failure, the brainchild not of an embittered marketer but of organisational psychologist Samuel West. Determined to display the results of his new research on innovation in an, well, innovative way, it was when he discovered Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships that he morphed himself into the role of curator.

As for his subject matter? “I’d grown more and more tired of the success stories we are force-fed that are supposed to inspire us,” he explained. “Sure, they can be inspiring, but they don’t offer us much to learn from.”

So as an antidote he began a process of collecting historical innovations that tanked. For West it was important not to include exhibits that were once useful but became obsolete, but collect those that failed, for whatever reason, from the very start. He recalls it was “a pain in the arse” to source culturally dead objects such as a bottle of Harley Davidson perfume, or an Apple Newton MessagePad, purely because they never sold well enough to be ubiquitous among the collectors community.

“I can’t say that I have a particular interest in brand failures,” said West. “It’s more a focus on innovations that fail. I actually don’t care about the brands. They are the symbols of something perfect, and I think it’s more spectacular to see Apple or Google fail because they’re these infallible, perfect rich multinational companies. The guy next door inventing stuff in his basement? He fails as well, but it’s not as interesting to dive into his failing as it is to dive into the failings of Coca-Cola.”

As a psychologist West admits there is an element of schadenfreude – a pleasure derived from seeing others suffer or fail – about the Museum of Failure. However he’s adamant the exhibits aren’t there to be laughed at; in fact he believes many are given a healthy amount of respect.

“For example there’s the story of Kodak,” West explained. “It’s this tragic story of a prestigious big company that failed to adapt their business model to the technology changes around them. Even though they were the pioneers in digital cameras they didn’t change their business model so they went bankrupt. They fucked up and it’s a warning example for other companies.

“Whereas I don’t feel bad for the [pointlessly gendered, universally lambasted] Bic Pen for Her. That’s just stupid.”

A walk through the museum could arguably be a little depressing for a marketer; it is, after all, a near-exhaustive collection of design and marketing disasters. But West believes marketers should instead look at the project as an education instead.

“There’s a lot that marketers can learn from the museum,” he said. “There’s of course the classic [lesson] that brand overextensions usually don’t work. They were fatal mistakes for Colgate making frozen dinners, or [Swedish weapon manufacturer] Bofort making toothpaste.

“Then there are also subtle lessons to be learnt, like … being first to market isn’t always the best. Despite what your boss or the super duper hot shot executive thinks, sometimes it’s better to do a good job than be first.”

He added: “If you’re a brand manager and your brand – either in marketing or production – fucks up, own up to it. People forgive, but they don’t forgive if you don’t own up to it.”

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Katie Deighton

Katie Deighton is The Drum’s senior reporter - creative and video based in London. She produces, films, presents and edits the title’s editorial video output, including series such as On The Scene, Ad Breakers and Why I Left Advertising, and manages its coverage of the creative sector. She also reports on the intersection between politics and marketing, as well as the third sector and fashion.

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