Rather than enshrine and entomb failure, the NewProductWorks collection treats it as the first step in product development. Housed in an unremarkable business park in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the world’s most comprehensive assortment of food packages and household goods—more than 140,000 in all—provides evidence of American marketing ingenuity, boneheaded pivots, and either impeccably good or extraordinarily bad timing. In short, it’s a historical study of consumer behavior.
NPW is a market research firm specializing in product launches. Its vast pantry—open to clients, not the public—is laid out like a big-box store. Shelves swell with bags of candy, cans of hair spray, peanut butter jars. But instead of dozens of a single item, there’s a lone example. Perishables like cookies, removed from packaging, have been dutifully eaten by staff.
Companies make pilgrimages to avoid their rivals’ mistakes. They comb the aisles for ideas, hold brainstorming sessions and seek strategic advice: Why are there so many successful incarnations (toothpaste, laundry detergent, kitty litter...) of Arm & Hammer baking soda? How did Four Loko caffeinated beer lose its buzz? What can be learned from Snausages Fortune Snookies, short-lived fortune cookies for dogs?
When Citrus Hill was being squeezed out of the orange juice business, a tour of the collection helped its marketers. A carton of Korean laundry soap—with a twist-top opening instead of the finicky pull-and-pinch cardboard spout—inspired the company to change its packaging, which wound up transforming the industry. But the collection also has cautionary tales like Downeyflake’s hockey-puck-shaped Toaster Eggs and Gillette’s shampoo For Oily Hair Only, a washout because no one wanted to stand in a checkout line with proof of their greasy locks.
Kleenex’s “virucidal” tissues (1984) and Richard Simmons’ salad spray (1989)were released years too soon. But few failed more miserably than Gerber Singles—servings of puréed adult food with flavors including beef burgundy and sweet and sour pork—in baby food jars aimed at senior citizens and college students. “The name may have been a little off-putting,” says curator Penny Wamback. “‘Singles,’ like you’re a loser eating all by yourself out of a baby food jar.”