On a Marketing Disaster

What happens when a corporation spends the equivalent of over 2.1 billion dollars on a product that ends up being a sales disaster? Well, for most companies, it would spell bankruptcy. And it certainly caused financial woes at this particular company. But we’ll come back to that in a second.

From almost every angle, this product should have been a winner. It came in the 1950s, at a time when consumer purchasing power was greater than it had ever been before in American History. The post-World War 2 boom in housing and consumer goods was still going on, and consumers were eager to spend the money a good economy was paying them. The market was right. The product should have been right. But, it failed. Why?

Well, turns out that the company that made the product was behind the times. Despite so much money spent on market research, the company ignored the fact that most people who were asked simply weren’t eager to purchase this new machine. The American public felt that the market for this particular product was saturated, that this new creation wasn’t, in fact, new at all. What was different about it was off-putting and weird to most people. And they weren’t efficient machines at all. In fact, at a time when people were starting to look more at user-costs to items, this particular product ended up being one of least cost-effective of its type.

And, sadly, the replacement parts for this machine proved to be one of the major reasons it flopped. No one wanted to spend money to repair something with hard-to-get parts that cost more than normal for a similar type of machine. Besides, so much money had been poured into marketing that little things, like gauges that didn’t work or seals that easily leaked were left unfixed or not well designed. Some poorly marketed products can survive bad naming or lack of popular support initially, but poor craftsmanship dooms any product. Critics panned it mercilessly.

Finally, there was the name. It stunk. In an era where forward-sounding, space-age marketed products were everywhere, this particular company named their product after…wait for it…some old guy. Yep. Nothing says “modern” like a product named after your grandfather. The name moved absolutely no one to purchase the product.

Thus, the product flopped. Spectacularly. Did I mention the over 2 billion dollars? And it was the first product by this major American corporation to do so. After making them for only three or four years, the company dropped the product. Surprisingly, the item was so bad and so disliked that, today, they have become highly valued by collectors; some of them can fetch as much as $100,000 in today’s market.

And that’s not a bad return on an investment in a failure, considering you could’ve bought an Edsel new for about $2,700 in 1958.

On a Failed Design

The 1950s saw an explosion of inspired, clever, sometimes offbeat and often plain wacky design concepts. The Bauhaus, form-follows-function design aesthetic of pre-war Germany gave rise to an increased use of steel, chrome, glass, and futuristic-type space age ideas in the first full decade after the war. Modernists were experimenting with shapes, textures, colors and new, synthetic materials in everything from building materials to appliances and even in fabrics.

In 1957, Marc Chavannes, an inventor, and Al Fielding, an engineer, decided to collaborate in a proposal for a new type of wall covering. The 1950s saw a huge uptick in the building of houses for returning vets and their families who were creating the Baby Boom Generation. The market was looking for new materials that fit the modern, new Space Age the world was entering. And that’s where Marc and Al thought they had a wonderful idea.

Their concept was–wait for it–textured, thick wallpaper. Their prototype was to take two shower curtains and combine them to create a thin layer of trapped air between the two plastic sheets. They thought their idea would be on the forefront of the new ’50s design revolution. They hired a manufacturer, and they set to work on what they knew would be a sure-fire success.

The partners were wrong.

No one was interested in what amounted to 3-D wallpaper. But the pair didn’t despair. They realized that those fused shower curtains with the air between them could have some possible insulative properties. So, the switched their marketing. Now, instead of textured wallpaper, the fellows were selling insulation for greenhouses. Again, that idea went nowhere, fast. People simply weren’t building greenhouses like they were building homes for middle-class America. The partners thought about giving up their idea of cashing in on the ’50s design craze.

Luckily for the pair, the company they’d contracted with to make their wallpaper cum insulation had a different approach. The company was called Sealed Air. One of their marketing men, Fred Bowers, was turning the product over in his hands on day, and a thought struck him. Lightweight. Insulative. Malleable. Sheeting. He made a call to IBM, the computer company. IBM, too, was experiencing a boom in the late ’50s, and they were shipping their new computers around the world. Bowers pitched the product to IBM as a protection for the computers during shipping.

The result?

Today, Sealed Air clears almost half a billion dollars a year from a product now known as Bubble Wrap.