4 Unappetizing Product Launch Disasters
Supermarket and fast food history is littered with perplexing products that seemingly never should have made it to the market in the first place. While everyone remembers New Coke and Crystal Pepsi as epic blunders, they’re not the only major missteps that otherwise successful food-and-drink companies have made. Let’s take a look at four other less-than-tasty product launch disasters.
1. The Hulaburger
No matter how you feel about its burgers, it’s hard to argue that McDonald’s has been anything other than a commercial juggernaut. Of course, the burger giant has had its share of flops, too. Although the “for adult palates” Arch Deluxe and the McFeast stand out as more recent miscues, McDonald’s funniest failure has to be the Hulaburger.
In the early 1960s McDonald’s chief Ray Kroc realized his stores were losing sales on Fridays since Catholic customers couldn’t stop in for a burger. Rather than offer a fish sandwich, Kroc decided to lure the pious in with the Hulaburger, which was simply a slice of grilled pineapple between two slices of cheese on a toasted bun. Kroc liked the sandwich, and he bet that the Hulaburger would outperform another meatless option, the Filet-O-Fish, which was invented by Cincinnati franchisee Louis Groen. Kroc wrote in his memoir, “I still have one for lunch at home from time to time.” The Filet-O-Fish won in a landslide, and the Hulaburger was soon abandoned.
Kroc admitted that customers didn’t love the misleadingly meaty name, leading many to say, “I love the hula, but where’s the burger?”
2. Pepsi A.M.
Crystal Pepsi may get all the failed-product publicity, but in retrospect Pepsi A.M. might have been a little sillier. It was the Pepsi you could drink for breakfast!
In 1989 Pepsi saw that coffee sales were declining and decided to surge into commuters' mugs by introducing a more highly caffeinated version of its flagship soda. Drinkers never warmed to the idea of drinking a soda with their cereal, and the new drink flopped even though it had 28% more kick than its regular counterpart. Pepsi took another swing at the coffee industry by introducing a coffee variant of its flagship soda, Pepsi Kona, in 1996, but that one died in the test marketing stages.
3. OK Soda
Of course, Pepsi’s main competitor Coca-Cola hardly has a clean track record when it comes to failed product launches. New Coke lasted only 77 days on the market, but the 1994 introduction of OK Soda was pretty spectacular in its own right. In 1994 Coke decided that it was time the company took a crack at Generation X, so it launched OK Soda, a brown soda with a fruity flavor.
The drink itself was less interesting than its branding. Coca-Cola marketing guru Sergio Zyman, one of the driving forces behind the New Coke debacle, teamed with ad agency Wieden & Kennedy to win the hearts and tastebuds of young men ages 12-25. The resulting ad campaign ran under the slogan “Things are going to be OK” and attempted to sell the soda based on “feeling” rather than taste. The resulting campaign showed how Corporate America viewed early-90s grunge teenagers, but it didn’t move much soda. Instead, it just felt like Reality Bites had given birth to a weird soft drink.
Coca-Cola used flat-yet-optimistic pop psychology and repeated admissions that it was part of the corporate world to help imbue the soda with the feeling it was shooting for. Despite getting cool can art from artists like Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns, the ad campaign never really said anything about why teens should like the soda, just that it was OK. Turns out that the strategy was a perfect way to get sales that were only okay. The brand only moved a million cases in the 14 months it was on the market before getting yanked. Now, all we have left are the strange ads:
4. Frost 8/80
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, American distillers began to notice a disturbing trend. Their longtime cash cow, bourbon, was starting to lose significant market share to more mixer-friendly clear spirits like vodka. Rather than try to play up bourbon and rye’s American heritage or their macho image, the distillers chose a counterintuitive strategy: if they couldn’t convince drinkers to favor whiskey over vodka, they’d make a whiskey that looked and tasted like vodka.
“Light whiskeys” that could be mixed into traditional gin and vodka recipes hit the market in 1972, but the strangest product came a year earlier from Brown-Forman, the parent company of Jack Daniel’s. In 1971 the company launched Frost 8/80, the world’s first “dry, white whiskey.” Frost 8/80 was basically bourbon that had been aged for eight years in oak barrels like normal bourbon before being filtered repeatedly until it lost its color, flavor, and much of its taste. (Otherwise known as “all of the things that made it a bourbon.”)
The clear 80-proof spirit billed itself as “a bar in a bottle” that could be used as the base for anything from a daiquiri to a Bloody Mary to a Manhattan. The only problem was that while Frost 8/80 didn’t taste like bourbon, it didn’t really taste like vodka, rum, tequila, or any of the other spirits it claimed it could replace, either. Despite the marketing materials’ claims, customers still saw Frost 8/80 as a whiskey, albeit a colorless whiskey with an odd flavor. Brown-Forman pulled the novelty product from the market after less than two years and took a massive loss on the blunder.