A golf club that you can urinate in. Google Glass. The Trump collection. What do these all have in common? A "coveted" spot at the Museum of Failure. I was lucky enough to be in New York during the traveling exhibit's stop in Brooklyn last month. I had many thoughts—from horror to laughter to shock to nostalgia, and everything in between. As the museum curator Sam West puts it, "Every failure is uniquely spectacular, while success is nauseatingly repetitive.”
Here are some of my biggest takeaways from this celebration of innovation, inspiration, and ineptitude.
Even big brands miss the mark
Some of the most successful companies excelled at flops. Whether it's cola rivals: instantly rejected New Coke and muddled Crystal Pepsi, or McDonald's hamburger just for adults, which didn't get eaten by anyone. Or consider legendary product designer Philippe Starck, who put form over function when users couldn't figure out how to use the beautiful tea kettle.
It shouldn't be shocking that well-known brands were blinded by prior success, excess product budget, or plain old lack of research. It reminds us that no matter how successful a business has been in the past, one day, you'll eat some humble pie (would you like fries with that?).
It's sometimes hard to fathom the innovation process
I saw product displays that were a bad idea from the get-go—like a device that only Tweets (momentary lapse that there are smartphones?) to bottled water for pets (even by current pet pampering standards, it's a stretch), to the Hawaii Hula Chair that claimed you could lose weight in its vibrating seat. Fat chance.
Yes, these were innovations by definition, but were deeply flawed even before the first prototype was developed, whether because it jumped on a trend, or attempted to create a new product category. Unfortunately, misdirected efforts landed these products in a place no company wants to be.
Anything from Trump is problematic
No matter what you think of the guy (aka former, twice-impeached and indicted U.S. President), he learned early on the power of marketing. He boasts an entire section at the museum—a dubious achievement at best. The Trump strategy appears to be a collection of products designed to give the wealth and prestige feelies—but it's really just faux gold pixie dust.
The bulk of these short-lived offerings—from Trump University, steaks, bottled water, a board game, and many others—turned out to be market losers. Maybe he should have taken his own advice when he said, “Sometimes your best investments are the ones you don’t make.”
Not living up to the hype
Centuries before the 1950's textbook hype failure Ford Edsel, the1600's had its beautiful warship called Vasa, which sank in front of horrified onlookers on its maiden voyage. Or witness the Segway, hailed as the "transportation of the future," which only ever caught on with small tours and mall security guards. Tech-y gadgets designed to be the next "it" product suffered the same fate throughout history, from the BETAMax, to 8-track players, to 3-D TV. Most recently, Google Glass, and kitchen clunker Juicero made their mark in the museum.
Similarly, the Museum of Failure showcases companies like Theranos, which promised something which didn't exist and was based on a lie. Consider the shady company that raised millions on Kickstarter for the Coolest Cooler, that was never manufactured, nor did the business repay thousands of investors (it's the crowdfunding site's biggest flop of all time).
Bewildering product extensions
Sometimes brands should put the brakes on expanding their product line. Gerber, for example, somehow thought single adults would appreciate Gerber for Singles, a mushy baby food-inspired dinner. Solo diners found it extremely unappetizing. Or Hooters launching an airline that capitalized on their restaurant brand—but it was a big bust. Colgate frozen dinners is the most perplexing. Was the thinking that if you trust your teeth to them, you'll want to eat something from them too? (Fun fact: Colgate wouldn't offer up their product for the display so a replica was created).
While it makes sense to expand a company's product line, it requires a market-fit, consumer research, and make real-world sense. Think Tide extending cleaning to its stain remover pen. Or Snickers offering its chocolate bar in as an ice cream treat. Or Dyson—a brand known for its premium products that circulate air—moving into a vacuum cleaner or a hair dryer market.
Failure is a human condition
It's hard to know where to stop. There are so many good displays at the Museum of Failure! (I haven't even covered the sex toys and dangerous products). But I'll fast forward to the end. In a perfect circle moment before visitors leave the museum, they're invited to post their own failures on a collective wall. Some are funny, others sad, self-reflective, or downright strange. But it's a gentle reminder to acknowledge, appreciate, and maybe even laugh at our oopsies and try, try again.