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Keepers and seekers: iconic products, fashion fads and flops

Updated Monday, 29th January 2018

What stays and what goes? Dr Fiona Harris explores IKEA's product development.

Iconic POANG chair Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: IKEA asset bank The iconic Poang chair (black and white)

Contemporary designs at affordable prices

If you visit an IKEA store or flick through its catalogue, you will find a mix of iconic and new products. IKEA has made its name providing contemporary designs at affordable prices. While IKEA continues to sell iconic items, such as the Poång chair created in the 1970s by the Japanese designer Noboru Nakamura, like most successful businesses, IKEA must continue to innovate.

Large organisations, such as IKEA and particularly high technology ones, have research laboratories devoted to developing ideas and prototypes of new products. Companies can also collaborate with other companies or individuals to devise new products, as illustrated by IKEA’s collaboration with the designer Tom Dixon to create a bed-sofa platform (as opposed to a sofa bed). Other examples include the smart car, developed by the Swiss watch corporation SMH and Daimler and launched in 1998, since when more than 1.7 million smart ‘fortwos’ have been produced1.

Image of smart car by Julian Cooper Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Smart and Julian Cooper A smart car, photograph by Julian Cooper

New product ideas may also come from periodic reviews of existing products, suggestions by staff members, suppliers, distributors or customers. It is not unusual for well-known companies (IKEA among them) to invite consumers to suggest ideas for new products. Examples include Walker’s campaign called ‘Do us a flavour’ with a competition for customers to suggest a novel new flavour for its crisps, Samsung’s competition to design an innovative stand for its QLED television and Lego’s Lego® Friends Designer contest to design a playground with the winning design made available in stores.

Customer focused 

Consumers seek both variety and nostalgia, keeping up with new trends but also taking comfort in the familiar or charm of a bygone age. The rise of fast fashion – the rapid and frequent turnover of affordable fashion based on consumer trends – is fuelled in part by consumers’ use of clothing for self-expression. Yet at the same time, consumers can be resistant to change; recall the furore when Coke sought to change its recipe and more recently the stockpiling by fans of Irn Bru when a reduction in its sugar content was announced. Retro designs and product revivals which hark back to earlier eras are also popular; witness the trend for retro-styled radios and the resurgence of vinyl records and music tapes.

Talking to customers and understanding their motivations and needs is key to introducing new products and services. Feedback requests from hotels, online retail portals and supermarkets, for example, show that a customer orientation – understanding user needs, is a reality for many companies and testament to their understanding of its importance. Understanding user needs can be critical for survival and in entering new markets. In the early 2000s, the Porsche product team identified their target customer groups and tested all the major features before agreeing on the final design. The Porsche Cayenne was launched and went on to make up half the company’s profit. 

IKEA provides inspiration and suggestions for meeting customers’ needs through room mock-ups and displays, such as a ‘Design your own laundry solution’ and ‘Make an easy and affordable change by simply refreshing your textiles.’ Products are often accompanied by information explaining the benefits and ways of using individual products. For example, the Svalnäs wall-mounted shelf combination benefits are listed as being “made of bamboo, which is an easy-care, hard-wearing natural material” and its “shallow shelves help you to use the walls in your home efficiently. They hold a lot of things without taking up much space in the room”.

IKEA laundry room Laundry room mock-up

Product development 

Radically new inventions are rare; more often than not, new products are improvements on existing ones – hence the common labelling ‘New improved’. Even Dyson’s revolutionary innovations tend to be novel ways of achieving the same end, such as vacuuming, cooling a room or drying hair. Innovative product and service providers such as Dyson and Apple take a customer perspective from an early stage of development. Apple, for example, encourages application developers to identify and target specific user needs and some organisations now involve computer programmers in customer visits, so they can understand first-hand how their new designs can be further developed and enhanced.   

Developing new products is expensive and failure rates of new products can be high. Some successful products have lasted the test of time, albeit some may have evolved since their original formulation. Examples include the VW Beetle car, Marshall amplifiers, Rolex watches, Kellogg’s Cornflakes, Marmite, Lyle’s Golden Syrup and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. 

How and why products fail

At the other extreme, some products attract notoriety by failing spectacularly to catch on, although some may nevertheless attract a small group of devotees. The small one-person battery-powered vehicle, the Sinclair C5, is a well-known case in point. New products can fail for a wide range of reasons but most come under the umbrella of a lack of preparation of some kind2. While some reasons might be flaws in the product, such as performance problems (for example Microsoft Windows Vista), other reasons might be unrelated to the product’s performance, such as a mismatch with the existing brand (for example Colgate’s Kitchen Entrees and Cosmopolitan yogurt), clashing associations (for example, Clairol Touch of Yoghurt shampoo) or odd combinations (Philadelphia cream cheese with Cadbury’s chocolate and Cheetos Lip Balm).

Products can also fail, owing to inadequate marketing support at their launch, for example, a product’s communication may not be effective, be poorly timed or not coordinated with a product’s distribution. Our fascination with failed products is evidenced by the creation of a Museum of Failure in Sweden which showcases innovation failures and features a touring pop-up museum of failure.

So what distinguishes the winners from the losers? Eight critical success factors have been proposed: (i) creating a unique superior product which offers unique benefits that are valued by customers; (ii) building the voice of the customer into the development of a product; (iii) putting in the necessary development work before launching a product; (iv) having a clearly focused product conceptualisation and specification; (v) undertaking a spiral of building, testing, obtaining customer feedback and revising a product; (vi) meeting the needs of a global market, rather than being specific to a single country; (vii) a well thought out and skilfully executed launch; and (viii) reaching the market in good time, whilst not skipping on proper development3.


1 Smart UK, (accessed Dec 2017).

2 Schneider, J. and Hall, J. (2011) ‘Why most product launches fail’, Harvard Business Review, April 2011, pp. 21-23. Available at: (Accessed: 4 January 2018).

3 Cooper, R.G. (2012) ‘New products – what separates the winners from the losers and what drives success’, in Kahn, K.B. (ed) PDMA Handbook of New Product Development, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.





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