5 Historical Market Research Disasters You Might be Committing Right Now

Hinderberg zeppeling crashing against tower

Market researchers labor hard to make sure probabilities work to the benefit of their organizations. It’s as much of a numbers game as it is a value-finding egg hunt. After all, marketing campaigns are typically long and expensive, with failure something akin to the Hindenburg disaster (certainly one of history’s great marketing catastrophes, beyond the horrible human tragedy). Yet the reality is that there are instances where market research contributes to the very crashing of product zeppelins.

Here are some of the major misadventures of market research:

New Coke



This is easily one of the most notorious failure of marketing analysis, although some business conspiracy theorists contend it was a ploy to actually deepen the desire of an iconic product by its removal and return (Michael Jordan mastered this years later).

Regardless, the sad tale is that in early spring of 1985 Coca-Cola changed its formula after almost a century. The company feared that Pepsi was making too many inroads in the soft drink market. In any event, the release of New Coke was met with widespread resistance, including:

Protest groups — such as the Society for the Preservation of the Real Thing and Old Cola Drinkers of America (which claimed to have recruited 100,000 in a drive to bring back “old” Coke) — popped up around the country. Songs were written to honor the old taste. Protesters at a Coca-Cola event in downtown Atlanta in May carried signs with “We want the real thing” and “Our children will never know refreshment.

(Yes, we’re talking about carbonated water here. This underscores the power of branding.)

In July of that year, Coca-Cola switched back to the old formula.

What market research said: New Coke actually proved to be better in taste choices, not only beating Pepsi but also Old Coke. Some accounts report the company tested up to 200,000 consumers. Doesn’t get more mathematical than that, does it?

What market research overlooked: The brand Coke represented an American lifestyle from a bygone era. Furthermore, if it ain’t broke don’t fix, and change can be perceived as an admission of weakness. As marketing academic Daniel Turner said:

In a naïve way, it made perfect sense for Coca-Cola to improve its product, making up for a known deficiency versus a focal competitor. But it made a fundamental error in forgetting what value it was offering customers—brand associations of America, friendship, nostalgia. These are emotional associations we cannot ignore.

Protesters not angry at the Cold War but at New Coke

Protesters not angry at the Cold War but at New Coke

The Ford Edsel



This lead balloon is the quintessential poster child for a marketing research problem. Released in 1957, Ford’s new vehicle was meant to be the evolutionary zenith of automobiles. The Edsel, featured Teletouch steering wheel, electric gear-shifting, self-adjusting brakes, a nifty speedometer redesign, and many other gadgets. It ended up costing the company $400 million, never resonating with the consumer.

What market research said: Everyone wants an encompassing product that does and has everything (it certainly worked for smartphones and personal computers). That certainly should have overcome an unattractive name in a world with so many car models with odd names (the name actually based on Henry Ford’s son).

What market research overlooked: Being everything to everyone is not always a good idea (just ask Google+). Perhaps more than that, as a marketing source explained: “One of the biggest problems with the Edsel was that it was competing against itself, matching retail value on many of the cars in Ford’s established Mercury line without bringing anything new to the table.” Lastly, hubris blinded Ford during its golden age, making it perform one of the worst mistakes in marketing by offering “the answer to a question nobody asked.”

In recent times the Ford Edsel has become a collectors item for a hipster generation

In recent times the Ford Edsel has become a collectors item for a hipster generation

Calvin Klein’s Sex Sells Campaign



Calving Klein certainly made money pushing the envelope, as have many other fashion brands. After all, trendy often means counterculture. In 1999 Calvin Klein overstepped the line with a series of commercials featuring underage, barely dressed amateur models—in a wood-paneled room basement, being interviewed by a creepy middle age man. The commercials were certainly stylistic and highlighted denim in all its glory. The public blow back was intense, however. The company yanked the commercials within 24 hours.

What market research said: Sex sells, goes the conventional wisdom, and when parents feel offended it commonly means teens and young adults will open their wallets.

What market research overlooked: Market research methodology should never take conventional wisdom for granted. According to a 2007 study from the University College London, sex actually doesn’t sell:  “There was no main effect of advertisement type on brand recall suggesting that the presence of sex in advertising does not assist memory for the advertisement.”

More importantly, an air of pedophilia is never, never a good atmosphere for advertising…or really anything…

I don’t have to quote any experts on this. Look at the video:


McDonald’s “I’d Hit It”



McDonald’s launched in January 2005 a doomed banner campaign presenting a young man slobbering over a double cheeseburger. The young man says: “Double cheeseburger? I’d hit it. I’m a dollar menu guy.”

McDonald’s quickly pulled the advertisements before any instances of romance between human and burger. There is certainly an odd connection to this year’s marketing campaign failure from McDonald’s—where consumers could express romance before a cashier for a free meal.

What market research said: Young people develop a certain jargon. Being perceived as sensitive to their culture, like talking their lingo, makes perfect sense in a marketing plan template.

What market research overlooked: McDonald’s own marketing department admitted it did not research the term “I’d hit it.” They say content is king in marketing, but context can be the executioner. Research every term, and go here if you’re still wondering about “I’d hit it.”

mcdonalds_id_hit_it marketing failure

It would be interesting to see what interpretation McDonald’s would have of Britney Spears’s first hit single


Google Glass



Not too long ago, Google possessed the Midas touch when it came to anything in its grasp. That ended last January when Google Glass unceremoniously failed. The dawn of the wearable tech got a rude awakening with a resounding rejection from consumers. This seems odd, since outside of the NSA, Google leverages the largest sphere of information in the galaxy.

What market research said: If tech can be shrunk to fit in the hand, as with smartphones and tablets, why not other parts of the human body?

What market research overlooked: Everything, it seems. Privacy and price concerns alienated much of the public—and the fact Google released early copies only to rich geeks in the west coast, thereby branding the product as elitist instead of the “affordable luxury” philosophy of Apple. As a CNN story explained:

“Google’s fast retreat exposes the most fundamental sin that companies make with the “build it and they will come” approach. It’s a process that tech companies rely on, referred to as public beta testing.”

Speaking of, it should be interesting to see what happens to Apple Watch at the end of April, although it’s safe to assume it actually has done some market analysis.

(And I should bring up Google+ again, the Edsel of social media).

Would offering a mustache with each pair have saved it?

Would offering a mustache with each pair have saved it?

Obviously there are often variables that no market research studies can predict. Ford couldn’t foresee a sudden recession in 1957 that crippled any possibility of saving the Edsel; Google can’t be blamed that America has entered an Edward Snowden era. Nonetheless, each of the examples above reveals serious blind spots in marketing research that were costly, if not sadly humorous.

Perhaps Jim White, a founding partner of RealityCheck, offers what is always needed for market research in his Greenbook article: empathy, experience, sharing, translation, and quality.

With these elements, surely some of the marketing Hindenburg’s could have been avoided. In the end, these examples showcase the limitations of market research—especially with its heavy leniency in number crunching and quantitative studies.

In the end, there are humans involved who tend to defy all probabilities.

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