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Brand StrategySeptember 6, 2022

What We Can Learn From 5 Product Fails

September 6, 2022
Michael Metcalf Photo
Michael Metcalf
Content Strategist & Freelance Writer

In 1999's Office Space, workplace bore Tom Smykowski shares his 'million-dollar' product idea with a coworker:

Tom: "It was a 'Jump to Conclusions’ mat. You see, it would be this mat that you would put on the floor, and it would have different conclusions written on it that you could jump to."

Michael: "That's the worst idea I've ever heard in my life, Tom."

Thankfully, Tom has a group of colleagues to shoot down his awful idea. He doesn't end up investing his life savings into taking it to market. But some ideas aren't so lucky. Some terrible inventions made it all the way through the production phase and were released into the wild – with embarrassing results.

The companies below all remain household names. Their brands weren't destroyed due to these failures. But they certainly suffered. Releasing a failed product can be seriously expensive — in some cases, it can cost billions.

We're not here to gloat or poke fun at these failures. Failure, as we'll see, can be a positive experience — as long as you learn from it. Here are five of the most notable product failures we've seen, and what you can learn from them about launching your own new ideas.

1) Colgate Lasagne

This is a legendary product failure — the one that appears top of any list of ill-advised releases. It's simply too good to ignore. This failure was so spectacular that the company behind it denies it ever happened — which has led to claims that it's actually a fake.

According to Dr. Samuel West, the creator of The Museum of Failure, a "showcase of failed innovations that opened in Helsingborg, Sweden, in 2017", his conversation with a Colgate lawyer proved mystifying and inconclusive. He told Prospect Magazine that his conversation did "suggest that they indeed did have a frozen food product but that it was not specifically lasagne".

So, here's how the story goes: In the 1980s, noticing the popular wave of microwave-based home cooking, Colgate decided to release a range of microwaveable frozen dinners, infamously including a beef lasagne dish.

Yes, Colgate. The toothpaste brand.

It's mystifying how something like this may have not only made it past the design stage but been approved by multiple stakeholders — it isn't exactly simple to launch something in the consumer food industry.

The (understandable) customer assumption of a product such as this would be that the lasagne tasted like minty toothpaste, which is a nauseating concept. It may well have been a tasty lasagne if it did indeed exist, but getting that message across with the Colgate logo on the box would have been an impossible task.

What we can learn from this (alledged) failure:

Your brand isn't just an aesthetic or a message. It's what your customers associate you with — whether that's emotions, sensations, or values.

Suddenly pivoting to something unrelated to the thing you've built your brand on is going to be hard work. It's a high-risk play that carries the danger of confusing and alienating potential customers.

If you really think it's something your customers will appreciate, you'd better have the market research data to back it up.

2) Nintendo Wii U

The Nintendo Wii was a video game console that anyone could play. Even your technophobe grandparents could pick up the simple controller and have fun waving it around to play virtual tennis. The Wii was released in 2006 and became the fourth best-selling home console of all time, racking up over 101 million sales.

But do you remember what came after it?

The Wii U was the 2012 follow-up console to the Wii, and there's a good chance you've never heard of it. It was widely regarded as a failure, selling fewer than 14 million units throughout its lifetime.

While it did have a number of technical improvements over its predecessor, it was strangely targeted. Nobody really knew who it was aimed at or what its main selling point was. The controller was changed from its iconic 'Wiimote' design to a wide pad with a screen in the middle so you couldn't wave it around, meaning the physical sense of joyous interaction was lost. And some people thought it was an accessory to the Wii, rather than a brand new console.

What we can learn from this failure:

There's a whole range of reasons why the Wii U failed, but the one that stands out is that it wasn't clear who it was for.

Casual gamers? Hardcore nerds? Parents? Young children? Teenagers? Their target customer simply wasn't well-defined.

Proper differentiation, segmentation, and communication are the key factors here: make sure everyone's crystal clear on who your product is for.

And Nintendo went on to learn from its mistakes, releasing the Switch in 2017, a semi-portable console that has sold over 102 million units.

3) Harley-Davidson Cologne

This one makes a little more sense than toothpaste lasagne. The romance of American motorcycle culture has an understandable olfactory link — engine oil, dive bars, and leather jackets.

Iconic motorcycle brand Harley-Davidson embodies the thrill of the open road, gruff masculinity, and the beauty of the machine. And fragrance brands usually play on people's desires towards those concepts.

But when the motorcycle brand launched a range of colognes and perfumes in 1996, it really didn't pay off. The bikes themselves are the reason for Harley-Davidson's popularity, but many felt that adding more products was contributing to the dilution of the brand. Fans felt that with every new product launch they were moving further away from what they loved the most: the motorbikes.

The fragrances didn't go down well. While the products themselves might not have been too bad — they're still being traded on eBay, 20+ years later — their brand positioning was just not a good fit.

They were discontinued a few years after launching and were never seen again.

What we can learn from this failure:

Remember your core customers. Your brand loyalists are the bedrock of your company, and they'll be patient with a few missteps — up to a point. If you take them for granted by straying too far from your values, you risk losing them.

4) Bic Cristal "For Her" pens

In 2022, it's clear to see why a product like this wouldn't do so well. You can't just color something pink and say it's for women.

And in case you need further explanation: women don't need special pens to write. But that was the implication of the “For Her” pen range.

The ridiculous part is that many people would buy pink pens — just like they buy pens of all colors. It might turn out that the majority of pink pens are bought by women — but even if that were the case, this was not the right approach.

It almost implies that women shouldn't be using ordinary pens and that there's a definite divide between the genders when it comes to pen usage. Some products can be gendered, of course (like clothing and health products, for example) — just not pens.

After its launch in 2012 and subsequent backlash, the product was swiftly canceled.

What we can learn from this failure:

Consumer brands like this shouldn't be prescriptive; they should offer choice. Let people make their own decisions about whether the product is right for them. If you're aiming at a particular demographic and think they're the perfect consumer — you don't have to explicitly state it. You can reach them through their preferred marketing channels and show images of them using the product, for example.

The world of gender in product marketing has really shifted in recent years, as we explore in our piece on gender-neutral marketing.

5) Samsung Galaxy Note 7

In 2016, Samsung released the latest version of their Note smartphone, a large model with a stylus that came with a range of impressive new features.

Soon afterward, reports started circulating that the device was prone to randomly burst into flames due to a battery problem. Videos of exploding phones were shared on social networks, and some airlines issued warnings to customers to turn them off during flights.

Samsung halted production of the phone mere months after its launch and issued a massive voluntary recall of every device (2.5 million worldwide) at an estimated cost of $5 billion.

The Note series continued, however, with its latest appearing in 2020. And Samsung Electronics continues to be a big player in the smartphone market.

What we can learn from this failure:

Quality control is crucial. If your product is terrible, customers won't buy it. And if it randomly explodes, they'll tell everyone else not to buy it as well.

It doesn't matter how perfectly-targeted or exquisitely marketed your product is if it's just not up to standard.

Samsung is a titan of the tech industry. It has the 8th highest brand value in the world and has a market cap of almost $300bn. It'll take more than one failed product to bring it down. But most companies don't have the luxury of such a giant pile of cash to fall back on.

Stop Trying to Avoid Failure

Failure is a natural part of life and business. Embracing it, rather than fearing it, is. an important part of the creative process.

Resilience expert Matthew Syed explains:

"In a complex world, failure is inevitable. It is those individuals and institutions that have the resilience and flexibility to face up to failure, learn the lessons and adapt which ultimately excel."

He frames failure as a positive experience for people, not something to avoid at all costs. For institutions, it's critical, too. We wouldn't have such stringent and effective safety regulations for airplane flights without learning lessons from past failures recorded by the “black box” incident recorders.

In many cases, the lessons that failure provides help propel brands forward to new heights.

Final Thoughts

For companies, it can be expensive to fail, and embarrassing if it happens in public. If you approach it the wrong way, it can seriously risk your brand safety. But without being willing to fail sometimes, you'll avoid pushing creative boundaries and you'll find it harder to truly innovate.

Totally risk-averse companies are actually risking failure in playing it safe because they'll be left behind by more adventurous competitors. So by taking a strategic attitude to dealing with failure, your product launches will be more successful over the long run.

Brand Strategy
Brand Insights

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