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The Most Questionable Product Launches of the Year

The results are in--and they aren’t pretty. Here are eight cautionary tales from some of the world’s biggest brands.

This post has been updated since it was first published.

Recently I gave a group of my MBA students at New York University’s Stern Graduate School of Business in New York this assignment: Identify the most questionable new products of the year and analyze what made them so ill conceived. The results are in and, well, they aren’t pretty—but they’re full of product development lessons no entrepreneur can afford to ignore.   

1. KFC’s Cheesy Bacon Bowl 

This gut bomb was made up of mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, popcorn chicken, shredded cheese, and bacon bits. The company doesn’t typically release nutritional information for limited time offers (it was only in restaurants for a month) but a spokesman estimated it weighed in at 790 calories—at least.

The problem: You can’t be all things to all people. For a while, KFC seemed to be trying to shake its deep-fried image by changing its name from Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC and adding grilled chicken to its menu. But the over-the-top Cheesy Bacon Bowl undid any progress made on that front and simply reinforced KFC’s fattening reputation. Sure, it received a lot of press, but that only makes it worse. KFC risks alienating the very clientele it was hoping to attract with more helpful options.

2. Paula Dean’s butter-flavored lip balm

You can almost hear Paula Dean’s signature twang in the tagline: “Put a little South on your mouth!” The Food Network TV personality reportedly sells this lip balm in the Paula Dean store in Savannah, Georgia. 

The problem: While this is a funny and novel idea, it further associates Paula Dean with fattening foods—without actually being fattening. From a product functionality standpoint, licking your lips, which this product sounds like it would encourage you to do, is the last thing you would do to prevent chapped lips. 

3. Qwikster 

Netflix’s attempt to separate its video streaming services from its DVD rentals and charge separately for both didn’t last long (all of about three weeks, in fact).

The problems: Many. For starters, it defied all commonsense by making the service more complicated and time consuming, forcing consumers to log in to each service separately and manage two different movie queues. On top of that, the launch followed a price hike that had already rankled users. In one fell swoop, between the 60 percent price increase it took over the summer on Netflix, and the launch of Qwikster, the company lost much of its good will and about 800,000 customers.

4. Smirnoff Marshmallow and Whipped Cream flavored vodka 

On the face of it, it makes sense: Launch a couple of unique winter-themed flavors to give a little boost to holiday sales.

The problem: Several years ago in a New York Times blind taste test, Smirnoff beat Grey Goose, which was a surprise to many given the latter’s more premium image. Smirnoff then successfully used those results to position itself as high quality. This season’s artificial-sounding Marshmallow and Whipped Cream brand extensions threaten to cheapen the brand image and drag down the perception of quality. 

5. Chevy Volt

For some, this was plug-in electric vehicle was one of the best new cars of the year; for others, it was one of the worst. 

The problem: Chevy probably wanted a first mover advantage, but it didn’t go far enough in delivering on one of the most crucial specs of an electric cars: how far it can drive on a single charge. The car goes on average, only 35 miles on a full charge before the gasoline engine kicks in. For drivers who live somewhere rural or just have a long commute, the electric range isn't all that impressive. Chevy should have waited until it could deliver more.    

6. RIM Playbook

RIM projected selling millions of these tablets in year one. The company has since revised its forecast down to 850,000 and that number is still declining. 

The problem: Let me count the ways… lack of a large, diverse app store, no initial apps for email or calendars, a poor interface, and a price tag that matched the dominant tablet in the market (iPad 2) with nowhere near the same functionality. RIM probably decided it was too costly not to introduce a tablet, but this flop will surely wind up being more costly in terms of damage to the brand and the bottom line.

7. Asus Padfone

Asus merged a phone and a tablet into one device. (Click on the link to watch a rather amusing demo of two-in-one product.)

The problem: While convergence (combining several devices into one) can be a positive if it serves a purpose, in this case it comes off as purely gimmicky and actually makes using either device less convenient. Who wants to have to remove their phone from being stuck into an iPad every time they want to use it?

Have your own nominations for worst product launches? Leave them in the comments.

 

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Last updated: Dec 29, 2011

MICHELLE GREENWALD | Professor, NYU & Columbia University

Michelle is a former Senior Vice President of New Business Development at Disney and a Vice President and General Manager of New Products at Pepsi-Cola. Currently, she teaches at Columbia and NYU Stern Graduate Schools of Business.




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