The Strange Tale Of a 1950s’ Nursery School Teacher Who Transformed an Obsolete, “Has-Been” Product Nobody Wanted into a $10 Billion Global Juggernaut
Did you ever hear the story of the $10 billion piece of clay goop?
Here’s the story:
Back in the 1920s and 30s, most American homes were heated with coal-fire furnaces because it was the cheapest and most efficient option.
However, one particularly nasty side effect of the coal furnaces was that the soot that burned off from coal would stick to the wallpapers of people’s houses, staining it and leaving behind an ugly black residue.
At the time, the best way to clean it off was with a manufactured piece of clay that you could rub on the wallpaper to remove all the coal stains. And because so many homes in those days had coal furnaces, it was quite a profitable product to sell.
But, by the end of World War II, coal-fired furnaces were increasingly being replaced by clean-burning oil and gas furnaces that left no residue behind. And sales of wallpaper cleaner were further crippled by the invention of vinyl wallpaper, which only needed a quick rub with soap and water to be cleaned.
This endangered hundreds of businesses who made and sold the old wallpaper cleaner — businesses like the one owned by Cleo and Noah McVicker.
The McVicker brothers owned a soap company that made wallpaper cleaning products that they sold to grocery stores but ran into financial trouble when the orders stopped coming.
Enter the unsung marketing genius Kay Zufall.
Zufall was the sister-in-law of Joe McVicker, who was running the company at the time. She also happened to run a nursery for young kids and needed cheap materials so her students could make decorations for Christmas.
In her search, she read an article about how wallpaper cleaner, with its rubbery and gooey texture that could be easily shaped, was a great low-cost alternative to pricier alternatives.
Zufall decided to give it a try and bought some wallpaper cleaner to give to her students.
Not only did it work, but it was a huge hit with the kids!
Zufall — sensing a big marketing opportunity — called up her brother-in-law and told him that if he wanted to save the company, he should consider her idea.
Joe McVicker took one look at the kids’ reactions and agreed it was a million-dollar idea. Further, to make the cleaner more kid-friendly, he removed the whitening detergent used in the original product, added dyes to make it more colorful, and mixed in an almond scent.
The last thing the product needed before it went to market was a name.
Not being particularly savvy about marketing to kids, Joe came up with the name “Kutol’s Rainbow Modeling Compound” — which isn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser.
In another stroke of genius, Kay Zufall came up with the name “Play Doh.”
And the rest is history.
Since Play Doh’s launch in 1956, customers have bought over 700 million pounds of the stuff, totaling over $9.9 billion dollars!
And without Kay Zufall, wallpaper cleaner would have died a quiet, undignified death in the product graveyard where so many others have gone to die.
Instead, it got a second life and went on to rack up a large fortune and define the childhoods of hundreds of millions of kids.
How was this done?
To understand, you have to understand the late great copywriting and direct marketing genius Eugene Schwartz’s “Five Stages of Sophistication” model to determine how your ideal customer relates to your product.
The whole idea is that a product has a kind of “marketing lifecycle.”
In the beginning in the first stage, your product is the first-ever of its kind. A good example of this Atari. Atari was the world’s first video game console and the game of “Pong” (that simple ping-pong style game where a white dot is batted across the screen by two players) is credited as being the world’s first video game and launching the “gaming revolution.”
As time goes on, competing products are introduced so you’ve got to make your claims bolder. Then, as your prospect becomes more and more skeptical, you need to come up with newer, better, and more convincing ways (“mechanisms”) that your product fulfills those claims.
This goes all the way to a fifth stage product, which is considered “almost dead” — a product that few people have any desire or need for anymore.
(A good example of this is the fax machine, which very few people use nowadays.)
However, the operative word in that sentence is “almost.”
Just because the product can no longer satisfy the original needs or desires of its original market doesn’t mean that it is doomed to go extinct.
Which is exactly what Joe McVicker and Kay Zufall did with Play Doh. The original product (wallpaper cleaner) for the original market (homeowners with a coal-fired furnace) morphed into the new product (the Play Doh toy) for a new market (parents with young kids).
Lesson: If you’re an entrepreneur or copywriter, you might have a product on your hands that’s in its fifth “almost dead” stage that you’re struggling to write a sales copy for.
Or you might not. Maybe you have a product that’s “just been born” and your market still, for whatever reason, hasn’t recognized yet that they want your product and are resistant to it. This is ALSO as the Fifth Stage of Awareness.
But take to heart another example from Schwartz.
One of his most famous headlines comes from the 1960s, selling a do-it-yourself book showing how TV set owners could repair their TVs themselves and could save potentially hundreds of dollars every year in repair bills.
But there was a massive problem.
Since most TV owners didn’t fancy themselves as repairmen, a headline simply stating the USP or making big claims for money-saved would be doomed to failure.
But then Schwartz had a true “lightbulb moment.”
The headline he came up with for the package was:
“Why Haven’t TV Owners Been Told These Facts?”
The theme of promotion was that TV sets (which were notoriously prone to breaking down at the time) could actually be fixed and be made “good as new” with relatively little time, money, and hassle — but the television repair businesses had brainwashed Americans into thinking they needed an expensive repairman to come and fix any problem they had with their set.
And to prove it, Schwartz went into emotionally-charged detail about how the prospect’s television set — the one that was giving him so many problems — was right now being tested in the manufacturer’s testing room (being subjected to the harshest tests imaginable, like being left turned on 24/7 for years at a time) and was passing with flying colors!
[The entrepreneur selling the do-it-yourself pool cleaning video course & e-book I mentioned earlier used a similar theme in his ads.]
Many times, entrepreneurs and copywriters have trouble trying to sell a fifth stage product, one which people are either a) not sure of its use or b) fulfills a need that people don’t have anymore — but done right, you can extend the profitably and life of a product much more than it would be otherwise.
© 2021 David Lowenthal Enterprises Ltd.
David Lowenthal is an independent direct response fundraising serving libertarian and other freedom-loving nonprofits.
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