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A Smithsonian For Stinkers


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A SMITHSONIAN FOR STINKERS

Ever wonder where new products go when they die? Some consum-er-marketing giants, most notably Procter & Gamble Co., maintain archives of old products. Most companies, though, prefer to forget and move on.

But Robert McMath won't let them. For over 30 years, McMath, now 62, has been scouring trade shows and supermarkets for new consumer products. He gathers samples of winners and stinkers alike for his own collection, the New Products Showcase and Learning Center, located in Ithaca, N.Y. The entrance to the center could well bear the motto: 'Look upon these works, ye marketers, and despair.' Jammed onto steel shelving inside a concrete-floored warehouse, the more than 80,000 items contain innumerable examples of marketing's has-beens, also-rans, and never-weres.

FLOPSHOUSE. As you would expect of a man who owns over 5,500 different kinds of beverages and 3,600 shampoos and conditioners, the garrulous McMath has pondered the lessons of them all. On a shelf near the entrance sits a pack of R.J. Reynolds' Premier smokeless cigarettes, which has never made it out of test market. The problem, according to McMath: "Only nonsmokers would like the product. Smokers like being wreathed in smoke." Nearby is a box of tissues bearing the curious name Avert. They were virucidal tissues that were treated to kill your cold germs when you blew your nose. A worthy goal, says McMath. But alas: "People weren't sure what a virucidal tissue was. It scared the hell out of them."

What's that box labeled Wine & Dine? It turns out to be the yupscale answer to Hamburger Helper, noodles and a sauce mix bundled with a tiny bottle of Chianti. Sad to say, the labeling didn't make it clear that the Chianti in that bottle was salty cooking wine. Consumers thought they had bought a little vino for dinner. When they discovered their error, they took their wining and dining elsewhere. Ill-considered names also hurt other products. That includes the shampoos dubbed Look of Buttermilk and Touch of Yogurt, which didn't exactly promise a good hair day.

McMath's collection is good for laughs and shudders, but there's a serious side as well. A former Colgate-Palmolive Co. executive, McMath these days consults for companies that want to review past efforts in a given product category. If you want to launch a new instant coffee, for example, McMath can trot out dozens of related products, both successful and unsuccessful, from bottles of coffee syrup to newfangled coffee bags (which haven't exactly taken the market by storm). To today's brand managers, it's comforting to know there's a place where marketing's fallen can go rest in peace.Christopher Power in Ithaca, N.Y.


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