Failure to launch: why some brands don't make it.


Perhaps it's the money. Large budgets are often greeted by marketing teams in the same way Keith Richards welcomes a stiff drink. But the fact remains that endless resources are not always guaranteed to produce branding success. Far from it.

The history of global commerce is littered with stories of massive investment, followed by abject disaster. And we might imagine that for every failure the marketeers become smarter and the number of products on the scrapheap becomes smaller. That would seem logical, but when it comes to launching brands, logic is not always high on the agenda.

So what lessons can be learned from the brands that crashed and burned? Allow me to make a few suggestions:

What is it?
New shampoos appear on the shelves on an almost weekly basis, (to the extent they now take up an entire aisle in the supermarket). But they are by no means immune to fuzzy thinking. The 1980s saw Clairol launch two new hair products called: 'Look of Buttermilk' and 'Touch of Yogurt.' They didn't sell.

It doesn't take much mental projection to read the mind of the potential consumer. 'Will I be washing my hair in actual yogurt? I don't really like the sound of that'. Or 'Do I want my locks to resemble buttermilk? Because I'm not sure I know what buttermilk looks like". The products' names may have sounded sort of poetic but they were hopelessly flaky. There was no effective attempt to explain the shampoos' ingredients, let alone their benefits to the user. The consumer couldn't get past the brand names to make the purchase. In effect, the brand was preventing sales because it couldn't or wouldn't explain itself.

Does it work?
Ah! Here come our friends from Apple again. Now surely Steve and Steve have never put a branding foot wrong. The i-Pod, the i-Phone, the i-Pad; these fellas are the masters of the iconic and desirable. Well, it's worth considering Apple's Newton PDA before canonising Jobs and Wozniac.

Funnily enough, the Newton wasn't a million miles from the i-Phone. It was about the same size, but it had one of those fiddly stylus things and you wrote on the screen. And that was the problem. The device rapidly became renowned for failing to recognise the user's handwriting. This resulted in important information being lost and the rapid conclusion that a pen and paper would have been a thousand times more reliable. Oh, and it cost about £500.

The unloved device was scrapped and PalmPilot and Psion rushed in to fill the vacuum with tools that did work. Apple learned a lesson the hard way: there is no point in rushing to market with an innovation if the technology is so wobbly it makes life more difficult for the customer. Interestingly, the Mac people came dangerously close to a similar difficulty when, earlier this year, the i-Phone 4 was revealed to have a fundamental connection problem.

What are you known for?
A familiar and trusted name can push a product or service like nothing else. Walkers crisps can be relied upon to be tasty and fresh, a Toni & Guy haircut promises style and professionalism '“ you get the idea. But when a business pushes their renown into areas in which their reputation has little or no traction, they tend to come unstuck.

The best example is probably the ignominious fall of Virgin Cola. The Virgin name was once associated with music and then, following a change of direction, built a highly popular travel brand. The move into fizzy drinks was a stretch too far, however. It should never be forgotten that Cola is unlike any other beverage. Its market leader is simply the world's best known consumer product and no amount of money has enabled their closest competitor to catch them. To launch another rival was brave indeed. To launch one that tasted decidedly odd was just plain foolish.

A lesser known flop, but one which suffered from the same affliction, was Harley Davison perfume and aftershave. You can see their thinking '“ '˜our brand is all about outlaw romance, freedom and sexiness. That should shift some scent'. Unfortunately, many women associated the brand with oil, grease and muck. And Harley owners weren't really aftershave men '“ most of them sported large beards. The company soon went back to concentrating on motorcycles '“ although their clothing brand sells well.

It should be obvious, but it's astounding how many corporations forget or fail to identify their target consumer. This is most apparent in the hugely perilous but highly lucrative toys market. The manic rush of desire in the run up to Christmas demonstrates the fever that can grip this sector and the mountainous revenues to be made if the game is played cleverly and correctly.

Mattel owns the Barbie brand, so it would difficult to imagine a company more skilled and experienced in marketing toys. Nevertheless, the incident of the re-branded '˜Ken' tells us much.

When Mattel were mapping out Barbie's future in the 1990s, they surveyed thousands of children to ascertain whether the plastic icon should continue her relationship with the swarthy Ken. The kids agreed she should, but only if Ken was cooler. Quite sensibly, the company's marketing people attended as many hip events as possible and had observed the trend for young men to sport earrings (and spangly waistcoats, it would appear). The result was '˜Earring Magic Ken' and he was a commercial catastrophe.

They had failed to spot two key aspects of the redesign. One: Ken now looked very, very gay. Two: it was almost always parents who bought the dolls, so it was their tastes that really counted. They had surveyed the wrong audience.

Now we can chortle at these bad decisions and the shed loads of wasted cash '“ and we do. But it's worthwhile remembering these calls weren't made by drooling idiots, they were made by folk who had probably launched many successful brands and in other circumstances were talented creatives and marketeers.

You know, people like you and me.

Magnus Shaw - copywriter and blogger


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