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Navigating failure: What marketers can learn from failed innovations

May 12, 2023

By Michael Stone, chairman and co-founder of Beanstalk and author of, 'The Power of Licensing: Harnessing Brand Equity'

Failure. We hate it. We try to avoid it. We dislike admitting it. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as, “A lack of success.” That’s pretty negative. And yet, we live with it all the time. We experience it repeatedly in our personal and professional lives. We admire those who tell us, “Failure is not an option.” But we all know that, in reality, it is an option. If we look closely at failure, we can see that it’s not the negative that we, or the folks at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, think it is.

Brooklyn’s new pop-up museum, The Museum of Failure, is seeking to challenge the perception of failure and encourage people to take meaningful risks. Here, I look at the common themes behind the failures of the products on display, such as misreading consumer attitudes, misjudging the price/value relationship, poor product performance, misunderstanding the competition, and ignoring or misinterpreting research - and what marketers can learn from them.

Failure is ok? What a stupid idea!

Remember Adidas Springblades? They were supposed to be a revolutionary running shoe introduced in 2013 that featured a new cushioning system made of foam blades on the soles that were designed to push runners forward. The problem was that the blades ripped off and runners often got cuts when handling them. They also made a lot of noise. Whomp. Whomp.

How about the Keurig Kold Drinkmaster? You could brew your own Coca-Cola product. Regrettably, the machine cost $370 (Keurig coffee makers range from $89.99 to $169.99) and the pods could be priced as high as $6 when a can of Coke costs $1.

Polaroid’s Polavision? It was a video camera system launched in the late 1970s after many years of research that produced 2.5 minutes of grainy video without sound. And it had to compete with the new video cassette systems just being introduced.

And have you forgotten Barbie’s younger friend Skipper (late 1970s) who could grow an inch in height and sprout breasts when you rotated her arm, or Apple’s Newton (late 1990s) which was ahead of its time with a touchstone screen and handwriting recognition but was slow and inaccurate, or the Amazon Fire smartphone (2014 – 2015) that featured 3D graphics and a “buy” button which took the user directly to Amazon for the purchase?

All of these products, from well-known, highly successful companies, failed. You can see them all on display, and many more, at a new, touring pop-up museum that I recently visited (it opened on March 17, 2023 and is open through June) in Brooklyn, New York – The Museum of Failure, the brainchild of Dr. Sam West. Dr. West is a psychologist and innovation researcher living in Switzerland, with whom I recently spoke. Innovation is driven by exploration and experimentation, he told me. He noted that reality is complex and that there is no general blueprint for why products fail, although we can find some common themes.

The museum’s website states: Innovation and progress requires an acceptance of failure. Dr. West adds, “The museum aims to stimulate productive discussion about failure and inspire us to take meaningful risks.” Ultimately, he wanted to find a fun way to communicate this.

What the hell is water?

In what has become a famous graduation speech in 2005 at Kenyon College, acclaimed author David Foster Wallace offered this little story: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says: “Morning boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” We often don’t see what’s all around us, what’s right in front of us.

As I wandered around the museum it was easy to think, “what a stupid idea,” but, of course, I have the benefit of looking back. If I put myself in the shoes of the creators of these products and in the time period in which they were working, it’s an entirely different viewpoint. Most of these products came from companies that are highly successful (they weren’t invented by some guy in a basement), known for their innovation and created by really smart people, often teams of people who had to sign off on the product, with lots of corporate support. Yet somehow, they missed something. Something all around them. Something about the market, or the target consumer, or the competition, or purchasing behavior. Sure, some of the products on display were simply bad ideas or the research was not comprehensive enough, but more often than not it was a miss in analysis of the market or the consumer. They didn’t see the water. That’s what really takes this museum to the next level, not just getting a laugh out of the products on display but really thinking about what was missed.

There are a number of common “misses” running through most failed innovations:

1. Consumer attitudes and cultural trends (Mattel’s Skipper was criticized for sexualizing teenage girls).

2. The price/value relationship (the Keurig Kold Drinkmaster).

3. Product performance (Apple’s Newton).

4. Understanding the competition (Polaroid’s Polavision).

5. Misreading or ignoring the research (likely many of the innovations mentioned).

Sometimes, as Dr. West pointed out to me, it’s the internal culture at a company. Companies are arrogant about their brand and think that they can go in directions where, in fact, the consumer will not give them permission. It’s corporate hubris. Lower-level people don’t feel secure expressing doubts to leadership. Even visionary leaders are not always right (Steve Jobs). People like new, shiny objects and so executives stay quiet. Perhaps that was the problem with the Amazon Fire smartphone. Of course, sometimes the innovation was just a bad idea (Adidas’ Springblade sneakers). And let’s not forget that good ideas can fail too.

Embracing failure

As the Museum’s website goes on to say, every product failure “provides unique insight into the risky business of innovation.” Most of the companies responsible for these failures did not go out of business because the product failed. They moved on. They learned from the failure --what went wrong, how to take inspiration from the failure, what they missed in their evaluation of the product and the market. Perhaps they even fixed a flawed corporate culture. The risk is almost always worth the failure.

I heard Ariana Huffington deliver a keynote to a graduating class some years ago. She told the newly minted graduates that, “Failure isn’t the opposite of success -- it’s a steppingstone to success.” I’m sure that companies like Mattel, Apple, Keurig, Adidas, Amazon and many others would agree.