3M Builds a Rube Goldberg Machine From Its Esoteric Products, but Is It the Best Metaphor?

Intricacy might undermine the message

3M, which makes lots of different kinds of random, practical objects like sandpaper and stethoscopes, has now combined a bunch of them into one highly impractical but somewhat entertaining object—a Rube Goldberg machine.

The video below, by Shinebox in Minneapolis, makes the manufacturer the latest in a long line of brands (e.g., Honda, Red Bull, Panera) to create one of the iconic contraptions as part of its marketing. 3M's angle? Building the machine using its own products, from welding helmets and plastic sheeting to, naturally, 25,000 Post-it notes and many rolls of tape.

Tempting as it is to groan at the reprise, cascading devices do have an intrinsically sticky appeal, at least in terms of viewer impulse control—it's hard to peel yourself away when you're wondering what will happen next.

In this case, the big finish comes in the form of brightly colored streamers made of Post-its. That sets up the tagline, "Science. Applied to life," which, for all its approachable gravitas, feels ultimately anti-climactic. The most powerful emotional appeal the brand can conjure is a bunch of bits of neon paper flying through the air.

That's probably because all the other fascinating stuff it can do requires the audience to think way too hard. And the interlocking products also risk unintentionally suggesting that 3M's varied businesses might encumber it (a notion its CEO dismissed as recently as March, in the midst of launching this new push to rationalize and modernize its public image). A Rube Goldberg machine may be functional, but it doesn't exactly scream efficiency.

So, maybe the company is better off adhering to more useful displays of its technology. Or it could just copy GE—another hard-to-describe conglomerate—and rely on a mishmash of esoteric art projects, pop sci-fi references and insane product demos with Jeff Goldblum.