The Ghastliest Product Launches
By Paul Lukas

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The folks who make Gerber baby food probably wish they could forget the experiment, but they once tried to market a line of meals for adults. Unfortunately, if predictably, it flopped.

That sort of misplaced brand context wasn't the problem when Miller Brewing tried to cash in on the clear-products fad with Miller Clear Beer--it just turned out, again unsurprisingly, that beer drinkers didn't want a colorless beer.

And as for Nestea's launch of a yellowish carbonated beverage called Tea Whiz--well, you can see the problem.

Three large, well-established companies; three colossal errors in marketing judgment. An obvious question comes to mind: What were they thinking?

As it happens, that query is the title of a new book by marketing consultant Robert McMath, and it's one he's uniquely qualified to pose. McMath runs the New Products Showcase & Learning Center in Ithaca, N.Y., a collection of about 65,000 consumer products, most of them abject failures. It is, as he puts it, a "library of losers." Nevertheless, product developers pay hundreds of dollars an hour to visit his facility and learn from others' mistakes.

McMath's specialty niche may seem like the basis for a comedy routine, but there's nothing funny about the high-stakes game of product development. According to What Were They Thinking?, it now costs $20 million to $50 million to launch a new product successfully, yet 25,000 new items appeared in 1997 alone, almost twice as many as in 1989. And here's the kicker: The vast majority of these products are destined to stiff. The most optimistic forecast is that only one in five launches will succeed; the most pessimistic, one out of 671. Okay, maybe that is kind of funny.

A stroll through McMath's product archive is funnier still, bringing you face to face with such quintessential marketing missteps as Frito-Lay lemonade (if you specialize in salty snacks, don't launch a beverage), Ben-Gay aspirin (if you specialize in a product that's hot to the touch, don't launch an ingestible version of it), and Louis Sherry gorgonzola Cheese Dressing (if you specialize in ice cream, don't launch anything with the words "gorgonzola cheese").

All kidding aside, why do so few products succeed? Both in conversation and in What Were They Thinking?, McMath identifies several culprits, including lack of innovation ("The cost of developing a new product has gotten so high that it's cheaper to just copy the other guy"), corporate inertia ("It sometimes takes more courage to kill a product that's going nowhere than to sustain it"), and an overreliance on focus groups ("People don't necessarily tell you what they really think").

Ultimately, however, McMath portrays a business culture that has fallen victim to its own worst devices. "We've created a management environment that rewards people for constructing facades and ignoring reality," he writes, putting his finger on the very essence of contemporary marketing. "You have to pretend, even if it's not true, that you are better, bigger, stronger, faster acting, newer, and more improved than everybody else."

So what advice would McMath have for someone considering a marketing career? He flashes a wry smile and says, "Go into real estate."

UPDATE: The folks at Parkay margarine, who recently began using the sales line "Now! Real butter taste!" despite having already marketed the brand on the basis of its buttery flavor for over two decades (see One-Man Focus Group, Oct. 13, 1997), have replaced that pitch with a new and improved one: "Now! Melt in your mouth buttery taste!"

Imagine the genesis of this campaign: One can almost envision Parkay's marketing team presenting the reformulated product to focus-group participants and instructing them, "Okay, let it sit in your mouth a bit, and then rate its meltability on a scale of one to ten." Repeated calls to a company spokesman went unanswered, so questions regarding the finer points of Parkay's marketing strategy were regretfully tabled.

Meanwhile, some very unscientific polling of five consumers in a Brooklyn supermarket revealed that they were all disinclined to have a hunk of butter, Parkay, or anything else melting in their mouths. "Except maybe some ice cream," said one. "You got any of that?"

PAUL LUKAS, author of Inconspicuous Consumption, obsesses over the details of consumer culture so you don't have to.