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Firm gets good results from bad ideas

Marketplace Staff Aug 8, 2008

Firm gets good results from bad ideas

Marketplace Staff Aug 8, 2008


KAI RYSSDAL: Tens of thousands of new consumer products hit American store shelves every year. Best estimates are that 90 percent of them fail. Within three years, they’re gone, never to be seen again. A consulting company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has made a business of collecting many of those products — the failed as well as the good. And companies pay big bucks to get inside and have a peek. From Michigan Radio, Dustin Dwyer reports.

DUSTIN DWYER: If a new consumer product goes bust — I mean fantastically, spectacularly 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. City people might get soot in their hair, country people might get dust. But as Raymond points out, people who lived in the suburbs weren’t sure which shampoo to buy. And storeowners stocking shelves were even more confused. They couldn’t buy a case of just City People or Country People shampoo. 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 who was thinking, and how they were thinking, and what was the sort of thinking behind it.

You could wonder that about a lot of the products here. There’s the TV dinner — “Wine and Dine” — complete with a small bottle of wine for cooking, not sipping. Or how about Harwell’s cranberry mayonnaise? Not your thing? What about Harwell’s pineapple mayonnaise.

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, without any of our services, 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, “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. Brody’s been in the business for decades.

If you’ve ever eaten apple sauce out of a plastic cup, or bought chopped lettuce in a bag, you have Brody to thank.

But product development is top secret. Brody wouldn’t tell me what he was researching or who he was working for.

I met another packaging consultant named Brian Wagner. He wouldn’t tell me, either. But 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 a 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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