In April of this year, the Museum of Failure opened in Sweden, celebrating some of the most notable and infamous failed products from big companies like Apple, Pepsi, McDonald’s and Google. The museum’s curator, Samuel West, has said that his vision for the museum is to bring together the results of successful companies’ strange product development ideas and process to celebrate them and their willingness to take risks. West, an organizational psychologist, believes displaying the failed products will serve to de-stigmatize failure and encourage people to attempt risky and uncertain projects. West believes that each failure is “spectacular” in its own way, and that the real failure comes from not learning from unsuccessful ideas and projects.
While many of the products on display at the Museum are difficult to explain- Colgate’s attempt to sell frozen lasagne and Harley-Davidson’s bid to infiltrate the perfume market spring to mind – many of the “failures” West has curated have led to more innovative and successful projects. As experts in the field of R&D and innovation, West’s assertions made us think about our favourite innovations that resulted from failures, and we thought it might be fun to go through a few of them here:
The Newton project, conceived in 1987, was Apple’s attempt to create the first “personal digital assistant”. Apple marketed the product as a total reinvention of computing, complete with a first-of-its-kind handwriting recognition software, that could be taken and used anywhere at any time. When the Newton was released, it experienced slow sales due to the ineffectiveness of the widely-derided writing recognition software, a problem compounded by its retail price of $699 USD (equating to roughly $1100 USD today). Newton also struggled to retain much of its market share when the more affordable Palm Pilot was introduced in the mid-90’s. While Apple persisted with the Newton for a few years after its release, sales remained poor, leading Steve Jobs to kill of the project upon his return to the company in 1997, citing the sales numbers as well as his dislike for the use of a stylus, preferring the use of touch. He did, however, use the Newton as inspiration in his development of the now-ubiquitous iPhone and iPad, turning the Newton from a $100M mistake to a $100M learning experience.
In 1968, Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M, set out to create and develop a super-strong adhesive. He “failed”, instead creating a pressure-sensitive glue that allowed products to be stuck to surfaces but also allowed for them to be easily lifted off. After marketing his adhesive for a number of years within 3M, one of his colleagues came up with the idea of using it to stick his bookmark in his books. After using it successfully for this purpose, 3M began to develop “Post Its”, and while sales were initially disappointing, the product later caught on as a great way to write and keep notes in relevant places, with sales of the Post It note now estimated at $1B USD per year.
New Coke/Coke 2
While unthinkable to us now, Coke went through a relative crisis in the mid-to-late 20th century, with its market share dropping from 60% in the post-war period to just 24% in the 1980s. After a lengthy market research process, the Coca-Cola Company learned that their smaller market share was a result of changes in consumer needs, with the consumption of lower-calorie and lower-sugar drinks booming, as well as a general preference for Pepsi, gleaned through a series of blind taste tests with consumers. To combat their loss in market share, Coke opted to reformulate their now-classic drink, making it sweeter to match the taste of Pepsi while reducing the caloric content.
After its highly-anticipated rollout, Coke faced strong repudiation from the media and consumers, who pined for the classic formula to return. After just three months, the Coca-Cola Company reintroduced their original drink, which quickly rose to the top of the market in terms of sales, eventually putting Coke back in front of Pepsi in the (hilariously named) “Cola Wars”.
There you have it, while the products launched may not have been successful at the outset, the willingness to take risks and develop new products eventually paid off for the people and companies behind them.
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