Firm gets good results from bad ideas

General Mills introduced Dunk-A-Balls cereal in 1994 under the Wheaties name. The cereal, with basketball-shaped puffs that encouraged kids to play with their food, wasn't the slam dunk General Mills hoped for.

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Scott Jagow: Every year, Consumers International gives an award for the worst product of the year. Last year, it went to a Japanese company that promoted sleeping pills for children. This year, I'm thinking, how about mortgage-backed securities? Anyway, a lot of bad products wind up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That's home to what you might call the "museum of bad ideas." Dustin Dwyer takes us there.


Dustin Dwyer: If a new consumer product goes bust, it might just make it into a special glass cabinet at Arbor Strategy Group marketing consultants.

Marilyn Raymond works for the group. She reaches into the cabinet and shows me one of her favorite product blunders.

Marilyn Raymond: This was a shampoo company that sold this particular product. You could buy either the city people version of the product, or the country people version of the product.

Now, it's possible people who live in cities would have different shampoo needs than people in the country. But as Raymond points out, people who lived in the suburbs weren't sure which shampoo to buy. And store owners stocking shelves were even more confused. The manufacturer only shipped cases with an equal number of each.

RAYMOND: So, Rite Aid sitting there in downtown Manhattan was stuck with half a case of Country People. You wonder, what was the sort of thinking behind it?

You could wonder that about a lot of the products here. The collection started 30 years ago, when a marketing journalist started setting aside products he wrote about. Arbor Strategy Group bought the collection in 2001 as a teaching tool for marketers and product developers.

Today, it includes 110,000 items, both failed and successful, from around the world. And it's not cheap to stop by and look at what's here.

RAYMOND: Just to walk in the door would start at $5,000.

Plenty of companies are willing to pay the price. Raymond says two or three groups come in every week.

AARON BRODY: One of the benefits of being in a place like this is you can see some of the packages that did not work in the marketplace, and you can sit back and analyze and say, "Well now, why didn't that one work?"

Aaron Brody is a packaging consultant. I found him on a recent Tuesday in the collection's condiment aisle. I met another packaging consultant named Brian Wagner. He says he walks the aisles of the collection about once a month.

BRIAN WAGNER: The majority of our clients are huge. You know, they're billion dollars plus. There's lessons for all of them.

Those lessons can be complicated, like figuring out the best way to market a new sports drink. Or they can be simple, like don't try to sell Country People shampoo in New York City.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, I'm Dustin Dwyer for Marketplace.

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