Product School

Epic Product Launch Failures and How to Avoid Them

PS logo with padding.png

Author: Product School

February 6, 2024 - 7 min read

Updated: February 6, 2024 - 7 min read

All top companies have hit rock bottom. Even the best in the biz have product launch failures on their records. In this article, we'll look at four reasons why products fail to launch, using examples from Apple, McDonald's, Google, and more.

As we can see from the examples below, failure is not an existential threat. Every one of these stories of failure is a case study of perseverance. The product leaders and their teams dusted themselves off and kept going. Of course, there’s no reason to repeat their mistakes if we don't have to. With that in mind, let's take another look at these infamous bungles! 

Failure to: Have Unique Selling Points

Unique Selling Point glossary

Microsoft Zune

Have you ever walked by a crowded bar and thought everyone inside looked like they were having a great time? If you thought to yourself, “I want in!”, then you know how Microsoft felt about Apple’s success with the iPod. Apple dominated 80% of the market share. Despite this, Microsoft decided to develop its own music player: the Zune.

When it launched in 2006, Microsoft’s Zune was an awful lot like an iPod. It played music, and there was nothing wrong with it except that no one associated their favorite playlist with Microsoft. 

Between 2001 and 2006, Apple had been working on developing yet another disruptive device: the iPod Touch. During those five years, instead of creating something that could distinguish itself from the iPod, Microsoft played catch-up. Apple came out with the new iPod right after the Zune launched, making the Microsoft player even less appealing.

Microsoft tried to elbow its way into Apple’s iPod party and launched a product with zero notable USPs. The result was pretty awkward.

The mistake: Playing catch up to enter an already saturated market and developing a product without any standout features.

How to avoid it: Focus on what you already do well and how your strengths can address consumer pain points.

Toolkit: Use a Value Proposition Canvas to help you hone in on strengths and opportunities. Compare your product to the competition with a product comparison template.

Failure to: Provide a use case

Apple Newton

Apple came out looking pretty good in the story above, but they've had their blunders, too. One of these was the Apple Newton.

The Apple Newton launched in 1993 after a fateful conversation on a plane between the CEO and Manager of Product Planning. They wanted to create a handheld device that could keep track of important tasks and keep users organized. They would later christen the concept PDA (Personal Digital Assistant).

At the time, a device with computing capabilities that could fit in your pocket was unheard of. They were reaching for the stars with this one.

Also astronomical? The price. In 2024 dollars, the Apple Newton sold for nearly two grand.

At that price point, a product should be a real game-changer. Unfortunately, the Newton couldn’t do much more than write notes (and not without difficulty—the handwriting recognition feature under-delivered), keep appointments, and save contacts. Which is to say, it wasn’t much better than your average 12-month agenda. So, what exactly was the point?

Apple wasn’t able to provide an answer and instead stopped producing the doomed device. 

Similar product launch failure: Google Glass

Blog image: Google Glass

Google Glass, created in 2014, were glasses that displayed useful information about the user's surroundings. Google tried to position the product as a luxury fashion item.

The problem was that nobody seemed to want to pay $1500 to look like a total dork. They didn't provide any unique information that couldn't be found elsewhere at a lower cost. What's more, the smart glasses were unpopular amongst non-users. One bar in Seattle went so far as to ban them because they made other patrons worry they were being filmed.

The mistake: The features didn’t provide the end user with anything worth the price of the product.

How to avoid making it: Position the product so that it finds its target audience and its target audience integrates it into their lives or workflow.

Toolkit: Use a Product Strategy template to establish the “why” behind the product.

Failure to: Understand the customer base

McDonald’s Arch Deluxe Burger

In the 1990s, McDonald’s was dead set on capturing the cool, hip Gen X market. With this in mind, they hired a talented chef to develop a gourmet burger that would appeal to young, urban sophisticates. The burger tested well and McDonald’s poured $200 million into advertising it. But when it was added to the menu in 1996, McDonald’s customers didn’t want it.

McDonald’s was so focused on creating a fancy new burger with stone-ground mustard and fresh-baked buns that it forgot to listen to the voice of the customer. The fast-food brand had a loyal customer base among people who loved the classics. They don’t want fancy fixings. Similarly, the types of consumers who did want something gourmet are unlikely to look for it at McDonald’s.  

Similar product launch failure: Coca-Cola’s New Coke

Another example of a brand neglecting its core audience is the famous flop, “New Coke''. When Coca-Cola became concerned it was losing the cola wars to its top competitor, Pepsi, it decided to develop a sweeter-tasting product called New Coke. 

They tested the recipe extensively and by all accounts, it was a tasty refreshment. However, when it launched, it was rejected by Coke’s customer base, who even went so far as to collect signatures demanding they get their old favorite back.

Coke drinkers proved to be extremely loyal to Coca-Cola. Choosing it over Pepsi was part of their identity, like being a dog-lover or a Harley’s Angel. New Coke made a mockery of that. The Coca-Cola company had to revert to its original recipe to avoid losing its loyal followers. 

The mistake: Not valuing your core customer base.

How to avoid making it: Conduct extensive research on both new and existing customers and develop accurate user personas.

Toolkit: Follow a User Persona template to make sure you’re asking the right questions.

Failure to: Demo the product effectively

Tesla’s Cybertruck

Product launch promotion is the capstone of a successful go-to-market strategy. The unveiling of the product before the press and the public can be nerve-racking because there is no better way to tank a product than making a bad first impression. 

We saw an epic example of a failed demo in 2019 when Tesla presented its new Cybertruck. To show just how tough the bullet-proof armored windows were, the lead designer threw a steel ball at the window. Just one problem: the glass shattered. 

Tesla later explained that the same designer had previously pummeled the door with a sledgehammer and cracked the glass window at its base, weakening it. The excuse may have been legitimate, but the fact is, Tesla had one shot to prove their windows could survive a zombie apocalypse. Any hopes of doing so were…well. Shattered. 

The mistake: Discovering an important design flaw during the product launch.

How to avoid making it: Exercise caution when unveiling a new product, especially if it’s still in the beta testing phase. It might seem like all the kinks have been worked out, but once the product is in the real world, there are bound to be a few hiccups.

Toolkit: Cover your bases with a product launch checklist.

All together now 

Behind every successful product are: 

  • Unique selling points that distinguish them from the competition

  • Clear use cases that add value and justify their price

  • Well-researched user personas that identify the motivations of prospective and existing customers alike

  • Rigorous beta testing and well-executed releases that make great first impressions

Do you think you have what it takes to launch a successful product? Product School is here to make sure the world benefits from your great ideas!

Ready to Master The Art of Product Launches?

Get an in-depth understanding of the critical elements that make a launch successful with our free Product Launches Micro-Certification (PRLC)™! Whether you're a seasoned pro or just starting, this is your chance to dive deep into iconic launches, understand foundational elements, and craft exceptional go-to-market plans.

Enroll now for free
Product Launches Thumbnail card

Updated: February 6, 2024

Subscribe to The Product Blog

Discover Where Product is Heading Next

Share this post

By sharing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service