Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
As part of my MBA Product Management class, I always direct students to Web sites listing some of the worst products of all time. This class is typically a popular success, as students enjoy discussing the real disasters from “classics” like Edsel and New Coke up to the present day. Many of the examples fall into the “what were they thinking” category, and students generally get a good laugh. Beyond the humor, however, there is always a real lesson to be learned. These products were all launched with good intentions and sizeable budgets, usually by well‐known and hugely successful companies, and yet something still went terribly wrong. With 20/20 hindsight, and after the laughter dies down, the students begin articulately discussing why Company X neglected to market‐test its product, forgot to check whether its product was filling a customer need, or should have tried a different brand name or positioning.
Brand Failures, by Matt Haig, offers 100 short lessons in “what not to do” when developing brand strategies. Those familiar with the work of Robert McMath at the New Products Showcase and Learning Center, or the Web site www.newproductworks.com, will no doubt be entertained by the examples, which range from Mattel's Earring Magic Ken doll and Ben‐Gay aspirin to Planet Hollywood and pets.com. Inevitably, there is some overlap with previous studies of bad products. Haig, however, effectively complements the familiar examples, such as Clairol's Touch of Yogurt shampoo and Gerber's Singles entrées, with several recent e‐business failures and also a healthy proportion of British and European examples (he is based in the UK) that should be fresh to most North American readers.
In his introduction, Haig provides several reasons why brands fail. A firm forgets what its brand is supposed to stand for, like New Coke; Haig calls this “brand amnesia” (p. 5). A brand's ego can get in the way, leading it to be applied to products for which it is poorly suited. Brand fatigue can set in if the brand has been around a long while and creativity slackens. Several other types of problems can also occur. Through all of these situations is a common thread. As Haig puts it, “Something happens to break the bond between the customer and the brand … more often than not, when brands struggle or fail it is usually down to a distorted perception of either the brand, the competition or the market” (p. 5). Haig's objective is to present a thesis on “how not to do it.” That is, by examining the failures and learning from them, firms ought to be able to improve branding decisions into the future.
Haig's book, in fact, is not so much about bad products as it is about bad branding decisions. The subtitle of the book is “The truth about the 100 biggest branding mistakes of all time,” and Haig indeed delivers 100 short anecdotes of anywhere from one paragraph to five or six pages, all written in a highly enjoyable style. The anecdotes are classified into several different categories of brand mistakes, including idea failures, brand extension failures, public relations failures, culture failures, “classic” failures, and others. Each category is preceded by a chapter introduction that summarizes key observations. For example, when discussing idea failures, Haig notes that clever brand strategy “cannot make customers buy a product they don't want. Or at least, it can't make them buy it more than once … Even some of the world's most successful brands have been guilty of introducing incredibly bad products” (p. 35). When discussing rebranding (renaming familiar brands, perhaps to make them globally consistent), Haig writes: “There are enough examples of rebranding disasters to prove that it isn't as easy as it sounds. [The firm either] can make changes so subtle that the consumer will hardly notice … or it must make sure that the changes it makes are in accordance with the customer's wishes” (p. 204).
At the end of almost every case, a set of about three or four “lessons learned” appears. These short statements effectively summarize the learning points illustrated by each case and really drive home the “how not to do it” value of the book. Haig argues that Procter & Gamble overextended the Crest toothpaste brand, which at one point numbered over 50 different variations. What can be learned from Crest? “Don't confuse the customer … don't offer too many products … remove product duplicates … be transparent [that is, make the customer's choice very clear] … remember your heritage” (p. 86). In the 1950s, Crest gained popularity with its “Triumph Over Tartar” campaign; by the 1990s, Crest seemed to have a case of brand amnesia. What about the Pentium chip? When word first came out in 1997 that there were occasional errors in the mathematical functioning of the then‐new chip, Intel downplayed the reports, denying that a major problem existed and failing to take responsibility for the errors. Intel's share value was hurt when the issue was discussed widely online among computer discussion groups. The lessons learned? “Remember that bad news makes the front page … don't ignore online criticism … respond quickly … monitor your critics” (p. 246). In fact, a real strength of this book is Haig's treatment of crisis management, and how brands like Enron and Arthur Andersen suffered because they did not respond well to crises.
As noted above, Haig does a good job in bringing the discussion of brand failures up to date with listings of pets.com, boo.com, Excite@Home, and other Internet ventures that fared poorly. Pets.com had excellent advertising and a lovable sock‐puppet mascot. Unfortunately, it was also spending about $80 per head on customer acquisition costs, while trying to sell products with thin margins and free shipping. Boo.com was launched as a global sportswear site, having raised tens of millions of dollars from investors, yet was derailed by a poorly‐functioning Web site, poor advertising timing decisions, and too‐optimistic planning (including an 18‐country simultaneous launch).
This book is a lot of fun. As I have observed first‐hand in the classroom, it is hard to go wrong when discussing how mighty, marketing‐savvy firms launch disastrous products, often with comical results. Yet, Haig wants to educate as well as to entertain, and at this he succeeds. Each one of these brand misfires offers several precautionary lessons to be learned, and Haig effectively identifies these lessons and organizes them logically for maximum impact. Anyone with a professional interest or involvement in brand management should read this book, and remember that he who does not know history is likely to repeat it.