In the beginning, there was the Edsel.
Today, there is the Coca-Cola Co.'s New Coke, apparently destined to join AT&T's Picturephone, Pringle's potato chips, Schlitz Beer and IBM's PCjr in the marketing hall of flops.
In the long run, Coca-Cola may ultimately succeed in turning its marketing misstep into a promotional prize -- by convincing its customers that it is a caring company, listening to them after all. But marketing experts said yesterday that Coke's decision to abandon and then bring back its age-old formula is, at the very least, a major marketing blunder that will be discussed for years to come.
"I put this on the scale of the Edsel . . . the classic case," said Larry Edwards, editorial page editor of Advertising Age.
Ford Motor Co. introduced this new line in 1957 and dropped it in 1959. The car had some unique features, including automatic transmission with push-button controls and self-adjusting brakes. But "it had an ugly name and an ugly grill" that turned away many consumers, Edwards said.
But even more significant, marketing experts noted, it was introduced at a bad time -- not only during a recession, but also just as small cars, particularly Volkswagen's Beetle, was being introduced in the American market.
"Ford did extensive research two years before the car came out. But unfortunately, consumer tastes had changed in the interim -- they wanted smaller cars with less horsepower," said Robert Hartley, professor of marketing at Cleveland State University and author of several books on major marketing errors.
There have been plenty more glaring marketing failures, marketing experts said yesterday.
Among them is E. I. du Pont de Nemours' attempt to sell a synthetic leather, called Corfam, in the 1960s. It was billed as better than leather, Hartley noted. "It didn't scuff, it was waterproof and was more durable than leather." Yet, also unlike leather, it didn't breathe or stretch, Hartley added. "So you were stuck with ill-fitting shoes," if you didn't get a good fit.
Another problem was its high price even though it was supposed to last longer than leather. "Leather is a status symbol and people just couldn't see paying more for something that wasn't leather," said Peter de Tagyos, a marketing manager for AT&T's long-distance division.
If anyone should know about marketing disappointments, it is De Tagyos, who is involved with AT&T's Picturephone, which allowed callers to watch each other during the conversation. The Picturephone was introduced at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. "At that time we were showing off future technology -- what would be possible," De Tagyos said. "The Picturephone was originally thought of for the residential market. But we never had the capability to make it affordable and universally available." Perhaps even more significant, De Tagyos noted, "the residential customer was not socially ready for it. Today -- even if it were affordable -- a majority of residential customers would still not be totally comfortable with it." But he said the company is marketing it to business customers.
Although Procter & Gamble officials say their Pringles canned potato chips are a big success, marketing experts all say it was a big flop, considering the grand ambitions P&G had for Pringles. Pringles was to become the nationwide potato chip, replacing the locally produced and distributed brands. The uniform-sized and shaped chips in a can were supposed to meet consumer complaints about potato chips that broke or got crushed or went stale quickly.
"Pringles never did what it was supposed to," Advertising Age's Edwards said. Many consumers didn't like the flavor while others liked the things Pringles set out to fix.
Still, P&G has not given up on Pringles. Officials said its sales have been growing steadily, partly with the introduction of new flavors to the line.
Closer to Coke's own marketing mishap were Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co.'s miscalculations in the mid-1970s, Edwards said. For a variety of reasons, Schlitz -- then the nation's second-largest selling beer, behind Anheuser-Busch -- changed its formula. Though the company never announced the change, consumers quickly noticed the difference. Disapproving, they began choosing other brands. Schlitz tried to recoup in the late 1970s with an advertising campaign in which an off-camera voice threatened to take away a willing-to-fight drinker's "gusto." Instead of winning customers, the aggressive ad frightened viewers away, Advertising Age concluded after a lengthy investigation.
As a result, Edwards said, Schlitz "has never been able to come back."
More current is International Business Machine Corp.'s attempt to enter the lower-end of the personal-computer market with its PCjr. Launched only a year ago, the PCjr already has been discontinued. Computer experts said it never caught on, partially because of its relatively high price -- compared with its performance -- and its limited capabilities -- compared with IBM's more expensive PC models.