Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 1999
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APRIL 1999


Marketing guru Robert McMath '54 has spent a lifetime figuring out fads, flops, and the consumers who fuel them.

P U B L I C    P O L I C Y    A N D    I N T E R N A T I O N A L

Breadth of a Salemsan
By Joanne P. Cavanaugh
Photo by Jon Reis

Robert McMath wears a large amber ring on his right hand. As he flexes his fingers, the ring reveals black, centipede-like zigzags inside. They are, in fact, bugs, prehistoric bugs lodged in the fossil resin: "Like Jurassic Park," he says.

It's not difficult to see metaphor here. McMath preserves the flotsam of another era--beer shampoo and Ben Gay Aspirin, Steve's Microwaveable Hot Fudge Sundae, and Maalox in whipped cream form. McMath's own makeshift museum is a gray Ithaca warehouse full of commercial products dating mostly from the 1960s to today, a place optimistically named the New Products Showcase & Learning Center Inc.

Throughout the year, product marketers, packaging specialists, and entrepreneurs with innovations--as well as curious media folk and people in legal tangles over patents--make the trek to upstate New York to peruse McMath's battleship gray shelving full of fads, flops, and forward-thinking products. Visitors come here to research what went wrong, or what worked, among the once-new products that have crossed consumers' consciousness. Hang out here and you, too, might start thinking in alliteration and corny rhyme.

California Coolers. Wine & Dine Chicken Chablis. And MicroRave, one of the early name-your-mistake microwave cakes (as McMath points out: "Some cakes fell, some cakes rose, some cakes oozed").

Foretelling Flops
Foretelling Flops A few factors that should foretell flops, according to McMath, include the seemingly obvious pitfalls of poor quality and awful names (a chocolate snack called PMS Crunch?), as well as skimping on advertising or promotion. Another set of McMath tips falls under the category of fear:

A bad concept comes to fruition because no one at the company has the guts to point out flaws. Bottled water for pets. Costs a lot. Yuppies can only go so far.

A project gets the green light because it "can" be done. The technology behind the Premier smokeless cigarette was amazing but flawed. And nonsmokers don't smoke.

As silly as a concept may be, no one wants to be accused of having missed an opportunity. Legume Sweet and Sour Tofu with Ramen Noodles went for too many constituencies. Failed to excite legume fans, ramen fans, sweet and sour fans, or tofu aficionados.

There's Guiltless Gourmet Tortilla Chips. Wilson Grand-Slam Super Protein Powder. And Jungle Jerry's Gummy Pals (a multivitamin supplement: "four important vegetables: carrot, broccoli, spinach, cabbage" in "four exciting flavors: orange, lemon, cherry, and grape").

Back in 1968, McMath '54 started collecting brands of shoe inserts, razors, mayonnaise, toothpaste, laundry detergent, and other American, and later foreign, products. In 1998, he penned a book on his experiences: What Were They Thinking? Marketing Lessons I've Learned from over 80,000 New-Product Innovations and Idiocies. (Time Business, Random House).

Today, McMath, who works alongside his business partner and wife, Jean, and their associate, Marilyn Raymond, charges from $1,500 to $15,000 per consultation. (Small firms pay an hourly rate of up to $200.) For the money, McMath can point out flaws in proposed products; explain the evolution of packaging or product histories; evaluate the competition; or predict trends.

Take the current urge for super-caffeine drinks, like Water Joe Caffeine Enhanced Natural Artesian Water. "Ten to 11 years ago, it was the "No Caffeine" craze," he says. "Now the pendulum has swung the other way."

Big companies, of course, have their own marketing research groups. But they have no archive like McMath's-- either inside a warehouse or , as he calls it, "the computer on my shoulders."

To tap both databases, product developers from Nabisco Biscuit Co. spent a few days in October 1994 at the showcase, picking over snacks. One currently popular product that can draw a lineage back to that visit is the company's low-fat SnackWell's line.

Jeff Cohen, then Nabisco's senior business director for out-of-aisle snacks, brought his toaster pastry team, granola team, and new concepts team: about 18 hopped a bus from East Hanover, N.J. The idea: to create snacks that could be sold in other supermarket aisles, such as the cereal lane.

McMath culled his 65,000-product collection for goodies. He sifted through the performance sports bars and other products. As new ideas were proposed, he laid out the pros and didn't shy away from the cons. Says Cohen: "The passion that Bob brings to the field is incredible."

Gord Varcoe led a similar research trip for Kellogg Co. as director of product development: "Bob McMath is not afraid to critique your company," Varcoe says. "He's got a booming voice, and he requires your full attention."

McMath collects the misfit products that many big manufacturers would like to forget--like Maalox Whip and Dr. Care's aerosol toothpaste.
Photo by Joanne Cavanaugh
JUST AFTER GRADUATING FROM HOPKINS with a bachelor's degree in business administration, McMath took a job with Colgate-Palmolive Co. as an assistant merchandise manager in toiletries. Among other pieces of advice he gives today is "don't hesitate to kill an untenable product," a conviction that might stem from a job he held earlier in Hopkins's admissions office: he typed rejection and acceptance letters. "It was like a player piano," he jokes. "Pull paragraph six or paragraph eight, either 'We didn't like you,' or 'Congratulations.'"

In the mid-1950s, as a U.S. Army corporal in Germany, McMath spent his free time at the PX taking notes on new products. He reported his findings to Colgate, which didn't much care what soldiers were buying. He went his own way over the next 40 years, developing marketing and product companies. When he first entered the field, the consumer-happy decades were just gearing up. "In the 1950s, there were 6,000 to 7,000 new products a year. Now there are 25,000," McMath says. "The '50s were the beginning of the affluent years."

As a consultant, he's worked for some big-timers: Procter & Gamble, Kellogg Co., and Colgate. His exhaustive collection is often better than these company's own archives. Executives may not even remember some of the flops partly because "been-there-done-that" employees are forced out as firms downsize and merge. He calls it "corporate Alzheimer's." "There are products tried as little as 10 years ago," McMath says. Yet "they think they have the world's first cereal in a cloth rice bag."

Some people simply avoid looking back, a short-sighted brand of optimism, he says. "A product maker today, who thinks he has a new idea, like chicory coffee, doesn't want anyone else [at his company] to know it's been tried before and failed," he says. This time, the thinking goes, things will be different.

McMath also complains that a new generation of marketers, including some students he teaches as an adjunct professor at nearby Ithaca College, have little interest in what preceded them. "They never know about anything that happens in the past," he grumbles.

So, working 12-hour days, he spreads the McMath Message on multicity speech tours, at product shows, as a columnist for Brand Packaging magazine, and wherever he can.

"More than nine out of 10 consumer products launched in the mid '90s offered absolutely nothing new," notes McMath.
Photo by Jon Reis
Some of his predictions and observations are based on common sense and experience. He also gathers data by talking to shoppers in supermarkets, chatting with company insiders and business reporters, perusing the Internet, and checking out what's new at trade shows. For example, he says, the ubiquitous "No Fat" label on products is going out of style. "No fat equates no taste," he's concluded. "Low fat is all right."

"People are feeling good about themselves," he adds. "They don't think they are going to die, so they'll go back to Starbucks for a Frappuccino."

Or, in another tidbit, McMath explains the rise and fall of the color black in packaging: "Black was thought to be funereal, then black became upscale, then black became passé."

McMath knows that as quickly as one product dies, something new will bump its way down the production line. His shelves are crowded with the proof. He touts the New Products Showcase (down from 80,000 to 65,000 products after some local raccoons got into his former warehouse) as the only one of its kind in the world. Cream-colored company brochures describe the warehouse as "The world's most stimulating product environment."

McMath, 67, explains his obsession by harkening back to his ancestral heritage: "I just never threw things out. I'm a Scotsman."

ONE COLD DAY IN JANUARY, McMath drives up to his business at the wheel of his white Cadillac, wearing a plaid scarf, long wool coat, and cap. The Cadillac's wheels crunch over the frozen ice field as McMath beats his own path to his timeless supermarket without shoppers.

If you want to check out the "stimulating" aspect of this environment, just consider the stats. There are, according to Jean McMath's always-growing count, 1,489 fruit beverages, 1,435 condiments, 3,403 frozen food packages, and, for varieties of plain old water: 733.

The shelves hold 2,592 hair products, 758 deodorant/anti-perspirants, 3,910 types of sauces, and 3,044 snacks, including 124 types of jerky. There are at least 115 varieties of peanut butter and 55 styles of canned pâté.

There are maple syrups, flavored syrups, diet syrups, sugar-free syrups, molasses, sweet spreads. Down the way are the shelves of shampoo: strawberry, apple, jojoba, aloe, collagen, coconut, beer, environmentally safe, sport, sea kelp, and so on. Handwritten notes tell the story. See also: end of shelf, next beverage aisle, for more energy and nutritional drinks.

(His collection has a few old, old products, such as Colgate Tooth Powder in cardboard "Victory Packaging," from World War II, and bars of Cashmere Bouquet Toilet Soap, which he found in the attic of his grandmother, a collector of things as well.)

At McMath's warehouse it quickly becomes obvious, after looking at an entire shelf of different Ban deodorants, that the energy devoted to developing the next, best, big seller is astounding. Product developers "stay up nights thinking up this stuff," McMath says.

He collects the misfit products many big manufacturers would like to forget. Over lunch at Billy Bob Jack's Barbecue Shack outside town, McMath mentions the Maalox Whip debacle (the concept: it stayed on the spoon better). "You could spray that on your chili or your pie and get an antacid. You wouldn't have to worry about indigestion." He pauses. "I'm just kidding."

McMath knows lots of arcane trivia and product anecdotes, and can talk about such obscure failures as Dr. Care aerosol toothpaste, tapping his experience as a consumer and father of four now-grown children: "It was supposed to be a family toothpaste. You don't put an aerosol can in the hands of children."

His unique brand of knowledge has attracted the attention of Good Morning America, the Today show, CNN, and 20-20, as well as late-night kings Jay Leno and David Letterman. These and other shows have tapped McMath to show off some of the more bizarre entries in his collection: Premier smokeless cigarettes, Gerber's Singles (baby food for adults), garlic fruitcake.

During one of McMath's three appearances with Letterman, the talk show host downed a few gulps of Jolt Cola, the high-voltage sugar and caffeine soda. "He rolled his eyes and asked for another can and said, 'Let's do another show!' He gave them $100,000 worth of free advertising," McMath says.

Letterman also tried to feed chocolate-covered onions to members of the audience. "Then he took a jar of Gerber's Singles, opened it, and tried to get me to eat it," McMath remembers. "That's a 15-year-old jar. No thank you, Dave."

McMath, who at 6 feet 5 inches is a persuasive presence, is prone to try to tinker with his image. He angrily points out a not-so-flattering picture on a news article tacked to his warehouse bulletin board, and then photocopies and passes along another story: A 1996 piece in WorldBusiness that used the headline "Failure Inc." and called him "Mr. Failure." Though that very shtick gets him attention, he doesn't want to be known that way. "People will think, 'I don't want to be with that kind of failure!'" he points out. As he advises in his book and speeches, "Negatives don't sell."

If there's anything Robert McMath is geared up for, it's selling. During the day I spent in Ithaca, he talked more than eight hours straight, at one point tiring himself--his eyelids started to droop. Though he's not shy and will opine at will, he's sensitive to feelings: "A lot of advertisers try to get innovative, but it's absolute crap," he says, then hesitates and backs up. "Don't say that word, say junk."

In September, Christopher Muller, a Cornell University assistant professor, invited 25 international restaurant executives, including a CEO of Bass Taverns of Britain and others, to McMath's showcase as part of a weeklong university seminar series.

"Bob McMath is a very entertaining guy," says Muller, who teaches chain restaurant management. "With the combination of his size and his stories, he dominates the group."

McMath's manner, however, can throw some people off: "They think he's pompous," says Muller, who also knows McMath from church and Ithaca social circles. "That's part of him being a showman. He's got a big sense of self. He's P.T. Barnum. He's practicing a certain sleight of hand.

Muller adds: "He has created a brand and it's Bob McMath."

TO MAKE HIS MESSAGE STICK, McMath coins his own phrases. He calls supermarkets "The Great Fluorescent Way" and touts the "chord of familiarity" he says companies should strike with consumers--a chord violated by Nabisco a few years ago, for instance, when the company coated Oreo cookies with fudge, making them hard to twist open as consumers like to do.

Though his showcase has been called "The Smithsonian for Stinkers," and "Library for Losers," the collection holds many winners as well: the Arizona iced tea line, for example, which tapped America's taste for flavored teas and vivid New Age labels.

Yet some would-be product peddlers who come here to do research-- a few people a week during busy times--leave a bit demoralized. "They figured out that every single thing they could do with their line, something like that had already been done," McMath says. "They went home depressed."

The No. 1 killer of new products is "Me-Too Madness," McMath warns. Consumers are confused by copycats. "More than nine out of 10 consumable products launched in the mid-1990s offered absolutely nothing new," he points out in his book (which was co-written, and actually put together by journalist Thom Forbes).

Innovations are important, he says, because products get lost in the competitive shuffle. "Ultimately," he asks, "what's the difference?"

He's found that some companies, notably The CocaCola Co. and PepsiCo Inc., consistently reinvent themselves, with questionable success. (McMath has done some consulting on packaging for Coke; Pepsi hasn't sought his advice.)

Take the infamous introduction of New Coke in the mid-1980s. "Coke did 200,000 taste tests, but they didn't tell anybody that it was Coke," he says. "People were just responding to the sweeter taste. A 100-year-old product that changes format is tantamount to grandmother having a baby."

Pepsi didn't learn much from the New Coke flop and in 1992 introduced Crystal Pepsi, a clear version of the soda. (McMath asked 250 graduate students in Ithaca how many had tried it; 13 people tried it, but only three liked it, he says. "And this is after Pepsi spent $100 million, including Super Bowl advertising," McMath says. "Now you tell me where they tested it.")

Taste tests and focus groups, McMath explains, are often skewed by human nature. "There's no such thing as science in marketing research. If you don't ask the right questions, you don't get the right answers," he says. "People have an innate desire to please each other, and will say things not because it's what they think, but what they think people want to hear."

McMath expects newly introduced Pepsi One to founder as well. Why should consumers go for yet another diet cola? "Pepsi One is supposed to appeal to men who don't want to look namby- pamby drinking Diet Coke," he says, based on his knowledge of packaging. "Pepsi One, with its black top, has a more manly appeal."

McMath's understanding of American pop culture serves him well. He has taken his message to 14 foreign countries. He's spoken about new product packaging in the People's Republic of China, where food enterprises would like to export chicken. He visited Russia in June 1997 to talk about why products fail in the United States, and to highlight other trends: "I told them that hot and spicy was the big thing in the U.S., then I found out that Heinz hot-and-spicy ketchup was over there before it was over here."

Because of such slips, McMath tries to downplay his predictions: "I can't look at anything and say for a fact that this is going to be a failure, this is not," he said. "You have to hedge." Sometimes he's just plain wrong.

In the 1980s, McMath panned Campbell's Prego Spaghetti Sauce, writing in his column that there were too many pasta sauces on the market. But he never tasted the sauce and had partly underestimated the TV ad featuring a young man talking to his skeptical Italian family matron about the sauce's many spices. "It's in there" became part of pop culture's vernacular, much like Crest's "Look Mom, no cavities!" and Wisk's annoying but memorable "ring around the collar" ads.

McMath is not always one to recognize flawed ideas close to home: his business endeavors include a failed restaurant and newspaper in upstate New York. About 20 years ago, he and Jean tried to revive a local newspaper but lost about $60,000 after struggling over low ad revenues, high costs, and other troubles. (The paper, The Naples Record, did survive under another owner.)

IT'S GETTING CLOSE TO DINNERTIME--about 10,000 words into the interview--when McMath pauses for a philosophical moment. "Here's one for you:" he says. "Trend is a trajectory from the past into the present and on into the future."

Whatever is here today likely had an antecedent. That includes McMath himself.

In the 1930s, McMath's father, John, owned a factory in New Rochelle, three storefronts where he developed fancy toiletries, such as bubble bath. The elder McMath created 50 trademarks, selling several, including Halo Shampoo, which was picked up by Colgate. As a teenager, Robert McMath worked in the factory; when he was 14, he managed the shop for a summer.

"My father was very inventive," McMath says. "His biggest problem was, as fast as he got a product on the market, he'd try to better it or start something new. He didn't have the stick-to-it-iveness. I deliberately wanted to go to business school, to get a business degree." At Hopkins, he majored in marketing and minored in advertising. His father worked into the 1950s. "He never had that multimillion-dollar success," says his son.

Among other roadblocks, John McMath lost a trademark battle for a topical anti-infection medicine he named Oxol in the 1920s. Procter & Gamble, which marketed the soap Oxydol, threatened to sue. His father backed down. Hundreds of cases of Oxol's metal aspirin-like boxes rusted in the family's basement for years. McMath has one box left.

While Robert was growing up, his father's business became the family business, just like Robert McMath's own ventures today. "My father worked and my mother worked with him," he says. "My mother brought some semblance of order. My mother kept him organized, like my wife keeps me organized."

Jean McMath is the curator of the collection and of the "walking encyclopedia of product trivia" who is her husband.
Photo by Jon Reis
MOST ANY ACTIVITY IN THE NEW PRODUCTS SHOWCASE also spins around Jean. She is the curator of the collection, and of the "walking encyclopedia of product trivia" who is her husband.

"If you leave out Jean, you are missing more than half the equation," says Cohen, who led the Nabisco snack fact-finding trip. "They are a team. And she is really the unsung hero."

From Jean McMath's C.V. on the showcase's business web page: "I'm not just a 'Gal Friday' but also Saturday, Sunday (when most trade shows are held), Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday."

The McMaths share a cadence only a four-decade marriage and two-decade business partnership could carry. As they pay for their dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Ithaca, they shuffle credit cards: "Do not mix your cards," Jean says to Robert as he pulls out about 15. She goes through the cards, snapping them on the table in two distinct piles. "This is business, this is not." She holds up one card. "This is American Express corporate, that's the easiest way to remember it." She inserts them in their proper piles in the leather billfold he holds open. "I have more trouble with this man, keeping him straight with his credit cards," Jean says.

Back in 1984, Ogilvy & Mather, the advertising giant, had bought McMath's business, then named Marketing Intelligence Services, and the showcase. Four years later, Ogilvy & Mather sold the collection back to the McMaths, and Jean took over as curator. The agency didn't know what to do with the 65,000-plus warehoused items, which Robert and Jean know like their own four children; the couple can recite product flaws and victories like old family stories.

Their partnership means that both go shopping for goods they add to the collection or send along to clients, usually manufacturers that want to analyze the competition's product. Earlier in the day, Jean walked into the warehouse hauling three bags of Whipper Snapple from the local market--Peach Mango Fruit Smoothie, Berry-flavored Power Smoothie, and other flavors to ship to a Japanese company researching the smoothie market. The McMaths invest about $10,000 a year on products.

On family vacations in Florida, for example, they've packed up their motor home with supermarket purchases. "We can't get away from it. The hardest thing for us is to pick up two things at the grocery store," she says. "We may need a gallon of milk and a gallon of ice cream and an hour and a half and $75 later, we've bought five gallons of ice cream and other things."

The couple celebrated their 40th anniversary in October by tacking two extra days onto an international marketing conference in Mexico, before they hit another two-day beverage show in Dallas. They've tried to balance their lives with longer vacations and purchased a time-share unit a few years ago.

Their next big trip is in April: the leisure-oriented Cayman Islands. Jean glances at her husband and sighs. "I hope the Cayman Islands doesn't have a supermarket."

Joanne P. Cavanaugh is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.