6 of the worst product failures in the food and beverage industry's history
Big corporations are not immune to product mistakes. Just think of Coca-Cola's infamous formula change for its classic soda and toothpaste maker Colgate's unsuccessful introduction of frozen lasagna.
Editor's Note: This article is part of a series focused on innovation in the food industry. To view other posts in the series, check out the spotlight page.
In the ultra-competitive food industry, companies are under immense pressure to develop the next big thing — products that wow consumers while bringing in millions or even billions of dollars in revenue to the manufacturer’s bottom line.
But throughout the annals of product development, there are thousands of examples of food products that weren't the next big thing and were unceremoniously pulled from the market — most without even so much as a public mention. There are a host of reasons why new products don't last: the public didn't want it, the item didn't resonate with the brand, the company was too early or late in the product cycle, or it just didn’t taste good.
“The established company has a mandate to innovate. It’s a very, very complex task to innovate when you are have very core products like ketchup, or ice cream or pasta,” Sophie Ann Terrisse, senior adviser with brand management firm 26FIVE, told Food Dive. “By expanding their line with ideas, recipes, marketing moves that are not authentic and true to the customer culture that they have created, [the product] will ultimately fail.”
To be sure, the pressure to innovate and create products that not only hit the market but resonate with consumers' pocketbooks is immense. New food and beverage product introductions in retail outlets have trended up since 2009, with 21,435 items debuting last year — the highest number in nearly a decade, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service.
With so many products making their way to the marketplace, failure is inevitable. Data analytics company Nielsen estimates only 15% of consumer packaged goods launched in the U.S. are still around two years later.
Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who studies how products, ideas and behaviors catch on, told Food Dive companies in most cases should let failed products go quietly without drawing much attention to them. But internally, executives should review why the mistake happened and find ways to make sure it doesn't happen again.
“Some sort of failure is inevitable," Berger said. "The question is how large those failures are and how much you learn from them. Better companies still fail but they fail small and quickly and learn from it."
There are hundreds of thousands of products that have met their demise during the last few decades. Here are six of the most memorable ... or should we say unmemorable?
1. New Coke
In 1985, PepsiCo's share of the U.S. cola market was nearly 30% and the beverage maker was threatening to top its bitter rival Coca-Cola. Desperate to end the slide, the Atlanta-based beverage maker replaced its iconic, closely guarded 99-year-old formula with New Coke — which the company claimed had a smoother, sweeter taste — in April of that year.
But just 77 days later, the company brought back old Coke under the guise of Classic Coke. The reason for the decision was clear: Only 13% of soda drinkers liked New Coke. Angry fans launched campaigns, collected signatures and started hotlines to force the company to bring back the original soft drink. ABC news anchor Peter Jennings even broke into daytime soap opera General Hospital to tell viewers Coca-Cola was giving into public outrage and slumping sales to bring the original soft drink back to store shelves.
Initially, PepsiCo benefited from the disaster, but those gains soon faded after consumer enthusiasm was restored with the return of Coca-Cola's familiar drink. More than 30 years after the product's debut, Coca-Cola has downplayed the launch not as a disaster but as one of the best things that ever happened to beverage maker.
"Thirty years ago, we introduced New Coke with no shortage of hype and fanfare. And it did succeed in shaking up the market. But not in the way it was intended," a Coca-Cola spokesperson told CBS News in 2015. "When we look back, this was the pivotal moment when we learned that fiercely loyal consumers — not the company — own Coca-Cola and all of our brands. It is a lesson that we take seriously and one that becomes clearer and more obvious with each passing anniversary."
26FIVE's Terrisse agreed that New Coke wasn't a complete failure for the soda manufacturer.
“That was a total unintended perfect creation coup. They got more mileage of the pure consumer adoration of the product than they would have with a new product anyway,” she said, while adding that it's difficult for companies to do this. “How do you transform disaster into a huge opportunity?”
The marketing blunder is widely cited today in business schools as an example of how not to introduce a new product to the marketplace.
2. Tropicana Orange Juice
When an attempt at changing a favorite consumer brand like Coke fails, many companies have no choice but to acknowledge the mistake publicly. PepsiCo learned that the hard way, too.
In early 2009, PepsiCo rolled out a new carton design for its popular Tropicana orange juice as part of a broader effort to improve the marketing for some of its biggest brands. The company ditched its recognizable orange with a straw sticking out of it on the package in favor of a design with a large glass of juice and the words “100% Orange.”
Just six weeks after its debut, PepsiCo scrapped the redesign and went back to the classic look. Consumers were complaining it made the product look generic and made it hard for them to differentiate the kind of juice that was inside the package. Another likely reason for the abrupt change: Tropicana sales plunged by 20% after the packaging overhaul, costing the company millions of dollars, according to AdAge. Minute Made, Florida’s Natural and other orange juice brands all recorded double-digit unit sales growth during the same period.
“We heard our customers and we listened,” a Tropicana spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal in 2009.
3. Life Savers Soda
Sometimes new products succeed because they fill a void with consumers. The Life Savers Candy was developed in 1912 by chocolate maker Clarence Crane who wanted to find a sweet summer snack that wouldn't melt in the sweltering heat. The candy was a hit. But the same cannot be said for the Life Savers Soda that hit the market seven decades later.
While the drink — served in a cylindrical bottle decorated with the same red, yellow, green and orange stripes as the candy wrapper — fared well in taste tests, it failed to catch on with consumers in th 1980s who thought it would be too sweet and was like drinking candy from a bottle.
4. Sun Chips
PepsiCo found itself with yet another marketing disaster on its hands when its Frito-Lay division introduced a biodegradeable bag made from plants instead of plastics for its Sun Chips line. The environmentally friendly product was introduced in March 2010 after four years of research, but sales soon began to tumble. While the company’s mission was well-received, the loud, grumbling noise of the new packaging was a major distraction for consumers who said it reminded them of a jet engine or a lawnmower.
Disgruntled consumers posted videos making fun of and lodging complaints about the new bag. It even spawned a Facebook group called “Sorry but I can't hear you over this Sun Chips bag." Sun Chips later discontinued the packaging, but with its image pegged to environmental sustainability, the snack maker went to work developing quieter sustainable packaging that debuted in 2011. The new bag received a more favorable response from the public.
5. Colgate Lasagna
Colgate introduced its infamous toothpaste in a tube in 1896 and the popular dental product became synonymous with teeth brushing ever since. But not everyone remembers the company behind the toothpaste introduced a line of frozen meals in the 1980s in the hopes that people would eat the company’s Colgate Beef Lasagna before with brushing their teeth with Colgate toothpaste. Unsurprisingly, the frozen entree concoction failed miserably with the public.
“Most people don’t want their lasagna to taste like toothpaste. It doesn’t mean that Colgate couldn't make a really tasty lasagna that’s delicious but most people don't see it that way," Berger said. “There is a great phrase — don’t sell what you can make, make what you can sell — and I think that really frames it well.”
Today, the lasagna lives on as part of an exhibit in Sweden called the Museum of Failures — a collection of about 80 products, some of them food and beverage items, that never took off. Colgate didn't want the product featured in the museum so the founder had to create a replica of the original packaging to display.
"When the Museum of Failure was written about in the international press, a legal representative from Colgate called and sternly informed us that nobody at the company recognized the lasagna," according to the museum. "Either Colgate has a bad memory, or the Museum of Failure got pranked by some branding consultant who started an urban legend years ago."
6. Purple and green ketchup
Tomatoes are sold in seemingly every color: green, purple, yellow, orange and the famous red, with consumers not afraid to experiment and try new varieties at the store or their local farmers market. But shoppers have come to expect ketchup made predominately out of tomatoes to come in one color — red — with one company, H.J. Heinz, selling more than 650 million bottles of the condiment each year.
heinz ez squirt colored ketchup— kait (@flashlightstan) March 7, 2017
-I hate ketchup but I remember wanting to like it so bad when these came out
-so weird pic.twitter.com/IP66lfeRcP
In 2000, Heinz introduced EZ Squirt with a kid-friendly nozzle in “Blastin Green,” “Funky Purple” and even a mystery color. Unlike some other product failures, this one initially appeared to be a success for the Pittsburgh-based ketchup icon.
Each new color the company rolled out resulted in incremental sales volume, according to a story by Fast Company, with the new products especially popular with children. Overall, more than 25 million bottles of colored ketchup were sold, pushing Heinz’s market share for ketchup to an all-time high of 60%. But sales later softened as kids grew bored with the product and parents, tired of seeing half-consumed bottles sitting in their fridge at home, were reluctant to buy another one. After sales continued to fall, EZ Squirt was pulled from the shelves by January 2006.
Learning from failure
Analysts who follow the food industry say successful companies often benefit from knowing when to reward failure. Take Google, which pays employees to give up on projects that just aren't working rather than waste time and money hoping they'll turn around.
But with the huge number of products hitting the market each year and the pressure on food and beverage companies to innovate, this can be hard to do — making further big-name failures inevitable.
Samuel West, director of the Museum of Failure, said none of the companies contacted by the museum wanted to be associated with the endeavor.
"The companies cannot hide these failures," West told Food Dive in an email. "I thought the most innovative companies would take the opportunity to show off how progressive and transparent they are and collaborate by donating items to the exhibit. Wrong. Failure is much more sensitive than I originally thought."
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