Perfection is out. We want our heroes flawed, our romantic comedies realistic and our images un-retouched.
But does this mean the world’s biggest brands are ready for a traveling exhibit called the Museum of Failure that showcases their unloved products?
“No,” laughed Samuel West, the project’s founder and an organizational psychologist by trade. “Nobody wanted to have anything to do with this.”
Despite his extensive network of innovation directors, West couldn’t get a single brand onboard when he launched the museum in 2017 in Sweden. “That was really a wake-up call, that this is much more sensitive than I thought,” he added.
So he built the collection through Craigslist, eBay and Russian classified ads. The Museum of Failure opened with some 60-70 items. Once the exhibit was a success—ironically—brands including Microsoft and Ikea began knocking at West’s door, offering their most regrettable products (current total: about 170) to be put in a shadowbox so people from Shanghai to Paris to Los Angeles—and New York beginning March 17—can shake their heads and wonder, “How did this get made?”
Having studied innovation and marketing at every stage, from teaching at Lund University to consulting with multinational companies, West assures that “you can fail in any number of ways.”
The exhibit includes the ideas that never should’ve gone past the “beer and Post-It note phase,” like 1999’s Rejuvenique toning mask, an electrified Iron Maiden for your face. Sometimes, the marketing department overhypes a product: Apple is guilty of not listening to its engineers at least twice, first with 1993’s Apple Newton MessagePad whose killer handwriting recognition feature didn’t actually work, then the disastrous launch of Apple Maps in 2012.
There’s leadership hubris, bad market timing, not enough product testing (Olestra, anyone?) and a whole world of things outside a company’s control. And all of this continues to happen despite the bottomless trove of consumer research that is social media.
Then there are the companies that keep failing at the same thing: Coca-Cola has tried to make coffee-flavored Coke happen twice already, the first time with Coca-Cola Blak in 2006 and again in 2021 with Coca-Cola With Coffee—neither lasted more than two years on the U.S. market.
Others just need some time to get it right: It took the Nintendo Power Glove (1989) and Virtual Boy (1995) before the gaming console maker hit the body-as-joystick jackpot with the Nintendo Wii in 2006.
But on the whole, despite failure being virtually inherent to innovation, “companies, even the most successful ones, they’re just not well equipped to learn from failure,” West said. “They don’t put in the necessary resources or the effort to actually learn something when things go wrong.”
However, West does see some signs that failure is being embraced. There’s the “no-blame culture” within some German companies that “provides psychological safety and an environment where you can admit and discuss when things go wrong,” he said. And marketing is shifting away from the fiction of a perfect product—West cites the famously self-deprecating campaigns of another Swedish export, Oatly.
In fact, according to West, branding and advertising professionals are the ones who most appreciate the Museum of Failure.
“They seem to get it—why pushing the idea that a brand is perfect backfires,” he said. “People want something authentic and genuine, and when something is perfect, it’s not authentic or genuine.”