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Is there a word for something that has been well-designed, looks good but can't sell. This can be an object or an idea..

  • "Haute-Couture"... "Self-indulgent"... "Not viable"... – Oldbag Feb 20 '15 at 10:16
  • Maybe vanity-ware? – bib Feb 20 '15 at 12:54
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    One problem is that few things are really "unmarketable". (Just look at the schlock in many stores.) Rather, they tend to be poorly marketed, before or after their time (in the sense of when the idea would be readily accepted), beaten to market by other "products", hidden by "noise" from other things when introduced, etc. Each would have its own idiom. – Hot Licks Feb 20 '15 at 13:31
  • I would argue that a product that is impractical (and thus will not sell) is not well-designed. To eliminate cost as a factor in evaluating its well-designedness is no less arbitrary than ignoring its inelegance, unmaintainability, unsustainability, and so on. – choster Feb 20 '15 at 18:00
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    @choster - There are many non-design aspects that can render a product a failure. (And cost is a design aspect.) Eg, I have seen up close a half-dozen times when management chose to "push" one design vs another simply because one was one manager's "pet project", or because it came from Site A vs Site B in a large corporation (where Site A was considered the darling). – Hot Licks Feb 20 '15 at 18:42

12 Answers 12

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Concept

As in Concept Car or "This energy neutral house was built from natural materials as a concept."

Companies often build such "concept products" as a marketing excercise and many are very well engineered, though not economically viable and the company has no intention of selling it, at least not in the immediate future.

If they built it with the intention of selling it and it didn't sell it would by definition be poorly designed and would be a White Elephant.

EDIT:

Thanks to Hotlicks for comments. There are some products (such as the Betamax) that whether due to bad luck or poor management, suffer because the market standardizes on the competitor's format. I would like to suggest the term victim of standardization for that.

  • I like the 'concept' idea...very close to what OP is looking for I think, +1. – user66974 Feb 20 '15 at 14:32
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    Except that a "concept xxx" is not generally intended to be marketed, but is just a "trial balloon" or sorts. It's not a matter of "can't sell" but rather the xxx was never intended to be sold. – Hot Licks Feb 20 '15 at 18:01
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    @HotLicks I think I covered that in the last paragraph. Something that was designed to be sold and can't sell is poorly designed. Therefore something that is well designed and can't sell must not have been designed with the intention selling it. The only other case I can think of is where standardization renders the product incompatible, per the Betamax answer. – Level River St Feb 20 '15 at 18:22
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    Something can be well-designed and sell poorly for a number of reasons having nothing to do with the design -- usually due to management stupidity. As with Betamax where Sony management foolishly refused to license the standard. – Hot Licks Feb 20 '15 at 18:37
  • @HotLicks That's "didn't sell because it was poorly marketed" not "couldn't sell." For Betamax (and the old Apple rival to the IBM PC) once they realised their mistake it was too late because the world had standardized on something else. I'd like to suggest the term "victim of standardization" for that. – Level River St Feb 20 '15 at 18:52
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I'm not sure if it needs padding out as a simile or can be used just as 'It's a Betamax'.

From Wikipedia:

Betamax

Developed by Sony Home movies, Home video Betamax (also called Beta, and referred to as such in the logo) is a consumer-level analog videocassette magnetic tape recording format developed by Sony, released in Japan on May 10, 1975....

The format is virtually obsolete, having lost the videotape format war though an updated variant of the format, Betacam, is still used by the television industry....

LThe SL-8200 was to compete against the VHS VCRs that had 2 or 4 hours of recording time.

Betamax and VHS competed in a fierce format war, which saw VHS come out on top in most markets....

The VHS format's defeat of the Betamax format became a classic marketing case study.

Internet examples:

Diller on Aereo: It's like Betamax.

Is SPB the Betamax of Layer 2? | The Networking Nerd

  • You mean that Betamax can be used in a figurative sense to suggest a good but unmarketable product? – user66974 Feb 20 '15 at 11:20
  • The second example I've added would seem that it is. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 20 '15 at 11:22
  • mmm..I think it refers more to an obsolete product..or to a technology that is easily surpassed by competitors (VHS in that case). – user66974 Feb 20 '15 at 11:26
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    I remember the discussions surrounding what was happening at the time. Most people I considered technically proficient considered Betamax the superior product when it had to be taken off the market. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 20 '15 at 11:36
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    I think this is a good suggestion, and it does convey a sense of the meaning that it is fundamentally a good product that didn't take off for some reason- Betamax was widely accepted as being subjectively "better" than VHS. However, I haven't heard it used in that way in general speech more than once or twice- though in both cases the intended meaning was received. To say something is "The Betamax of [some other genre]" does the trick I feel... +1 – Marv Mills Feb 20 '15 at 11:37
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Commonly used in the entertainment industry is "Turkey" - And I think, although this is not supported in that Dictionary link, that its use can be extended to other things:

"You remember that thing we made? Brilliantly designed but turned into a bit of a turkey in the end"

Another related term is "White elephant" - Again this dictionary definition does not tally exactly with my understanding of the term to mean "useless and impossible to get rid of"

"They spent a lot of time on the design but in the end it was a bit of a white elephant"

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    Both Turkey: (a failure, especially a failed theatrical production or movie.thefreedictionary.com/Turkey) and White Elephant are nice suggestions..none of them on target I guess! – user66974 Feb 20 '15 at 10:10
  • Agreed, none are quite on the mark like Edwin Ashworth's suggestion. – Marv Mills Feb 20 '15 at 11:39
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I love Edwin's 'Betamax' reference, but I believe a better term would be critic's darling. It's widely used in the artistic fields and sometimes in technology to describe a thing that dazzles the press and the cognoscenti but fails to find a broader market/audience. (Cf. Segway, Jim Jarmusch films....)

3

Spruce Goose

A very well designed and well-built aircraft that just never became a commercial success.

3

The phrase "ahead of its time" comes to mind.

2

I'd call it simply a curiosity.

An unusual or interesting object or fact : he showed them some of the curiosities of the house

(oxforddictionaries.com)

Curiosities are by their nature valuable to their owners or curators, but not to the world at large, because of their peculiarity.

  • Yes, but you are missing the unmarketable part of the question. – user66974 Feb 20 '15 at 10:30
  • I'd think curiosities are only 'marketable' in a curiosity shop, and that's not a big deal, is it? – anemone Feb 20 '15 at 10:33
  • I see..that makes sense. I think OP is more after a definition for some well-designed product or great idea that are actually unmarketable for some reason. – user66974 Feb 20 '15 at 10:39
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    This answer does not actually answer any parts of the OP's question. The OP does not state the object is unusual or interesting nor that it is valuable to its owner but not to the world at large. As a native BrEng speaker I can say that the word "curiosity" conveys a completely different meaning to that requested by the OP. – Marv Mills Feb 20 '15 at 11:11
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    @MarvMills Yes. You are right. The OP does not state the dictionary definition of 'curiosity'. It would be too easy. Otherwise, I think the OP's question is brief enough to admit many readings and understandings. Sorry mine is not the same as yours. – anemone Feb 20 '15 at 11:47
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While it doesn't imply any degree of quality on its own, a prototype or proof-of-concept might fit the bill: it's an early version of a product which is typically unfit for selling or mass producing, but serves the purpose of demonstrating the design that might be approved for a final product. Because they're often produced for pitching an idea to an investor or board, they can look quite attractive and might even be ready for production. The "ugly" prototypes tend to be those produced for purposes of experimentation, where function supercedes form.

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I think Marv Mills' suggestions come pretty close to the best answer.

The word folly http://www.thesaurus.com/browse/folly is used for architecture that is well-designed, but pretty much pointless, but could equally applied to any item that is costly but frivolous. If the item is simply an unnecessary purchase then frippery comes to mind. Perhaps the OP would like to expand or clarify the original question?

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looks good but can't sell

This makes me think of a polished turd. Summarizing:

So you've got the job of producing, managing, or marketing something. It could be [...] anything but whatever it is, it's bad, or at least mediocre. The concept is fundamentally flawed, the execution so rushed and so badly thought out, that no one in their right mind would buy it on its own merits. [...] It's your job to make it look good. So what do you do? You try your best to make it look better than it is and hope that it's effective enough to sell a few million copies.

This is a slightly different bent from your question. When you say "well-designed but not commercially viable," I think you're looking for something that is fundamentally a good thing, but held back for other reasons. Perhaps it is prohibitively expensive because it's ahead of its time, like tablet computers in 1991, 1993, et. al. up until Apple successfully marketed the iPad.

But maybe you're thinking of something that's

Then you could be dealing with a polished turd.

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How about "Rube Goldburg machine"?

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    It's spelled Rube Goldberg. You can edit and include some extra info, which will make your answer stronger. – Mari-Lou A Feb 21 '15 at 20:13
  • The point of Rube Goldberg machines is that they are not efficiently designed, so this suggestion doesn’t meet the querent’s criteria. – Tyler James Young Feb 25 '15 at 17:03
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On Shark Tank they often refer to these types of products as tchotchkes.

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    Are you sure? I don't watch the show, but I would think they use the term tchotchke in the standard way, to mean "useless trinket". Such trinkets might be well designed or poorly designed, and might sell very well or very poorly. So this word doesn't really capture what OP is asking for. – John Y Feb 20 '15 at 21:54
  • Up to OP on the context, I suppose. I'm confused as to how your description and the original question are different. If a trinket is well-designed, but generally useless, then it follows that nobody would buy it ("not commercially viable"). I would agree that a dictionary definition does not imply "well-designed", however in the context of the show, the Sharks always use it to try and tell someone that their product has no market, as opposed to calling it a poorly designed piece of junk. – KTM Feb 20 '15 at 23:26
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    The essential part of tchotchkes is that they're trinkets. When I say they're useless, I'm just referring to the fact that they tend not to have a "useful function"; they are there just to look nice, or be amusing, or serve as a memento. That doesn't mean they don't sell. Also, if you're saying that it's a euphemism for "poorly designed piece of junk" then you've missed the other side of what OP is looking for too, because they are specifically asking for a word that indicates something which is not poorly designed. – John Y Feb 21 '15 at 4:24
  • I'll continue to feed the troll on this one. We seem to be close to agreement, but you're too busy arguing with me to notice it. I never called tchotchkes a euphemism for junk. I only said that the dictionary definition does not comment on whether or not the term informs the reader about an item's quality. The Sharks, however, used it in this context to describe an item that looks great, but doesn't appear to have a real market to sell to. See this link, maybe you can find another that shows the video: inc.com/graham-winfrey/…. – KTM Feb 21 '15 at 18:19
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    Well, I think tchotchke is a bad fit for OP's question in any case. My thought was either that they misused the term on Shark Tank, or you misunderstood/conflated it. (Especially since I figured the Shark Tank folks were native English speakers, and you may or may not be.) As it turns out, after reading the comment from the Shark Tank judge/investor, I think you've correctly understood how they meant it, but to me that just means they've misused it (effectively, it's Shark Tank jargon). – John Y Feb 21 '15 at 21:28

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