In his years as an innovation researcher at Lund University in Sweden, Samuel West got sick of hearing the same story over and over — the tired narrative of the nerdy innovator from humble beginnings whose brilliant idea made him a millionaire.
To chip away at those questions, West started buying failed products online. At first, he did it for his own amusement, but it quickly turned into an obsession. Eventually, he said, he amassed dozens of items.
Now, his one-of-a-kind collection of flops is getting a permanent home.
In the coming weeks, West is set to open the Museum of Failures in Helsingborg, Sweden, celebrating some of the corporate world’s most extreme misfires. The goal, he said, is to show that innovation requires failure. Every exhibit offers “unique insight into the risky business of innovation.” In other words, we can all learn a lot from bad ideas, so we should stop pretending they never happened.
So what will be on display?
For starters, there’s the short-lived Harley Davidson “Hot Road” perfume:
Visitors will get a look at the Sony Betamax video cassette player, which became a case study in marketing defeats after it lost the war over videotape formats to its rival, VHS:
Some more recent products made the cut as well, including the 2008 Twitter Peek, a tweeting device whose display was too small to fit 140 characters, and the Nokia N-Gage, a combination smartphone and gaming system that became a poster child for poor design after its release in 2003.
Food products will be featured as well, including Orbitz, a 1990s fruit drink with floating edible balls, and a microwave beef lasagna from Colgate, which consumers weren’t ready to buy from a toothpaste company.
Remember Bic for Her, the pink and purple pens “for women” that were ridiculed as sexist when they showed up in the office supply aisle in 2012? Those are in the museum, too.
And what Museum of Failure would be without an artifact from President Trump’s days as a businessman? Yes, he made a Monopoly-style board game once. It bombed.
West said the idea for a standalone museum dawned on him last summer during a family trip to Zagreb, Croatia. While there, he stumbled across the Museum of Broken Relationships, which collects mementos from failed romances and displays them under glass.
“This is a crazy museum, a spectacular idea,” West remembered thinking. “I just lost it. I was like, ‘I’m doing this.’ ”
Of course, West didn’t know a thing about how to run a museum. But he said he got a confidence boost when he set up his first pop-up exhibit.
In January, West brought six products from his collection of failures to an innovation conference in London. Representatives from Adobe and Microsoft had set up booths nearby, but “everybody came to look at this hokey museum,” West said. “It was a wild success.”
Shortly after, West put out a call for people to send their own failed products. The collection quickly grew to the 70 or so items he has now.
The Museum of Failure doesn’t open for another several weeks, but West has already fielded media requests from around the globe and messages from tour groups to come visit.
Why the fascination with failure?
“I think I’m not the only one fed up with this surface image that everything is perfect, ” West said.
“Everybody’s got a big PR department whose job is to make the company look good in every possible way. And we love it when people mess up,” he said, using an expletive not printable here.
One recent example, he said, was the widely-mocked Pepsi ad that showed Kendall Jenner solving the world’s social justice problems by giving a can of the soda to a police officer. Pepsi pulled the ad after it was ridiculed as tone-deaf and exploitative.
There’s a nostalgia factor at play, too, in the new museum.
“As soon as something doesn’t exist anymore, everybody loves it,” West said. “You can’t just go out to Walmart and buy these things anymore.”
“But if you went to Walmart and bought everything,” he added, “a lot of those products might also be in the museum in 10 or 20 years.”