The birth of a would-be fad

One tiny California company aims to elevate its Celebriducks collectibles to Beanie Babies stature. Will the public buy into its plan? An inside look.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Late last year, the Philadelphia 76ers basketball franchise had a peculiar request for Craig Wolfe: Make a rubber duck bearing the image of its star player, Allen Iverson.

The team assured Mr. Wolfe that the product promotion would be a big hit. He was less certain.

Wolfe had been manufacturing rubber ducks for four years. His line of 22 Celebriducks included the three-dimensional likenesses of Hollywood icons like Charlie Chaplin and Mae West, as well as historical figures like William Shakespeare.

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At the time, the ducks were sold online and at small gift shops scattered across the country. Wolfe did not think they could actually be used to promote anything. "We were below the radar," he says, "with mostly a cult following."

And then a wave of duck fervor swept through Philadelphia.

News that the 76ers would hand out free Iverson Celebriducks at their Jan. 11 game sparked a frenzy. Fans lined up for blocks to buy tickets. A police escort accompanied the ducks to the stadium.

The company soon won the exclusive rights to sell ducks modeled after players in the major professional baseball, basketball, and hockey leagues.

The producer of the MTV program "The Osbournes" requested four prototypes of Ozzy and his family. And then came a nod from the mainstream: JCPenney ordered 300,000 Celebriducks of 100 different figures due in stores this fall.

Today, when Wolfe cups one of the tiny ducks in his hand, his eyes light up. Improbable as it sounds, these ducks may possess the intangible ingredients that end up sparking a collectible craze.

Yet some observers are skeptical of plans to generate mass sales of a product whose only inherent value is its appeal as a cultural quirk.

Success will depend on the public's mood, not marketing, they say.

"What strikes the population and appeals to them at the moment is very specialized," says Pamela Danzinger, author of "Why People Buy Things They Don't Need." "You can't design a fad. It just happens."

The men and women who design and manufacture Celebriducks say they have no idea how big their product can get. But they offer a telling hint: Beanie Babies are frequently mentioned in the same breath.

Those tiny plush animal dolls – sales of which went through the stratosphere during the late 1990s – set the standard for collectible success.

Wolfe has closely studied the Beanies' rise from obscurity to help prepare him for a difficult task – getting American consumers excited about a product that nobody needs.

Yet Wolfe believes that the rubber duck is poised to become the next icon of American collectibles – a darling of the national zeitgeist. "This is where teddy bears were 20 years ago," says Wolfe.

There is some evidence to support his claim. Over the past decade more than 100 varieties of rubber ducks with individual identities and features have been created by a number of manufacturers, observers say.

This new population of ducks – some designed to represent various professions including nurses and firemen – have spawned a new collectible subculture.

"There's a lot of people who collect these all over the world," says Don Shepherdson, president of the Seattle-based PromotionalProductsandIdeas.com.

Celebriducks, Wolfe says, represent the market's high end. He spent two years perfecting the ducks' squeaker. Skeptics said adding one would cause the ducks to sink in water. He also found a way to make the ducks float upright, despite their large heads.

Above all, says Wolfe, each duck is a work of art.

They are primarily the design of his daughter, Rebecca, who works with Wolfe in his sun-drenched home in San Rafael, Calif. Rebecca's sketches are e-mailed to China, where a team of master craftsmen construct a mold.

The Cheryl Swoops duck, as per the WNBA star's request, has French-manicured fingernails. The Allen Iverson duck is adorned with Iverson's trademark cornrows hairstyle and arm tattoos. The attention to detail has redefined rubber duckmaking. "Who's ever done tattoos on a duck?" asks Wolfe.

An attempt to goose demand

During a frenzied day recently, exchanging e-mails of sketches with clients, Wolfe showed the strain of trying to complete JCPenney's order by the fall. His most challenging task, however, is not to turn out ducks, but to fuel demand.

During the morning, Wolfe receives word that a company that manufactures Bobbleheads – a collectible doll concept dating back to the early 20th century – is attempting to create a Celebriduck knock-off. They plan to undercut his price, he says. (Celebriducks cost about $12 online.)

But Wolfe has a plan to build customer loyalty. In the Beanie Babies tradition, he is rapidly broadening his roster of ducks. He says it's vital to accumulate a critical mass of celebrities that represent a range of ethnicities, cultures, and trades. "Even if you had ducks of Mick Jagger and Marilyn Monroe, you still couldn't make a statement unless you had a breadth of ducks," says Wolfe.

Even more important: preventing a duck glut by limiting production runs.

From his first models – Betty Boop and Charlie Chaplin – Wolfe has normally limited the number of ducks he makes to about 5,000 per run.

There is a market for more, he says. But Wolfe believes he can better pump up demand by signaling to consumers that his product does not sit on store shelves for long.

"People want what they can't have," says Wolfe. "Everyone wanted Beanie Babies when they started retiring them. Then all of the sudden it became a thing. And when it became a thing, it really became a thing."

Where these ducks wade

Limited editions are but one of several tools collectiblemakers use to light a spark.

"When you're playing with a fad, you want to do artificial things to make it feel more unique than it is," says Watts Wacker, coauthor of "The Deviant's Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets." "One is to make a finite amount. Second is to have it in only a certain venue of distribution."

Part of the task of building the Celebriducks' mythology is keeping tight control of where they are sold. One consequence: Consumers will not likely find Wal-Mart selling the ducks anytime soon. Wolfe has sworn off discounters, partly to keep distribution of the ducks low, but also in an effort to polish their image.

"Collectibles that sell in Wal-Mart are downbranding by equating themselves with mass merchandize," says Karen Feil, executive director of the Chicago-based Collectors Information Bureau, which tracks the resale value of limited-edition products.

Wolfe has been careful about placement, first selling the ducks in cozy specialty boutiques where they are often displayed next to objects made of glass and stoneware.

Most consumers are now introduced to them amid the welter of a sports stadium before a game. Customer service, in this case, is at a minimum.

But the company's leadership believes that by giving their product away at such events they are able to forge a stronger emotional bond between owner and duck. Big events, they say, build strong memories.

"Kids who got the Jason Giambi duck at Yankees Stadium cradled it in their arms for hours," says Bob Selsky, Celebriducks' marketing manager. "That's something they'll remember for a long time."

Pondering new products

Wolfe runs his company like a casual entrepreneur. He fields calls in a pair of shorts – no shirt. Disney paraphernalia and books are scattered throughout his home – the result of a 30-year infatuation with the company.

Before Celebriducks, Wolfe sold images from Coca-Cola and Hershey's commercials as artwork. A friend's suggestion five years ago that he get into the rubber-duck business has made him the kind of Walt Disney figure he never expected to be.

Indeed, a recent request from Disney that he submit a few Celebriduck sketches of Disney characters has given Wolfe the sense that his creative life has now come full circle.

He also has meetings scheduled with Bed Bath & Beyond, Spencer Gifts, and a few sporting-goods chains.

If his ducks are on the brink of big growth – McDonald's has shown interest as well – Wolfe believes his product is uniquely suited to accommodate the demand. "Think of how many university mascots you can do, how many company CEOs or famous singers you can do," says Wolfe. Other ideas include Supreme Court justices, authors, jazz musicians – the list goes on.

Yet the company's success partly hinges on persuading celebrities, and their lawyers, that being a Celebriduck is an honor, not a joke. The rock group Kiss, rapper Snoop Dogg, and singer James Brown are among those who have agreed to have ducks made. The Beatles, Madonna, and Frank Sinatra's estate all have demurred.

Consumers can order custom-designed ducks of, say, themselves or a friend, for about $7,000, Wolfe says.

The public's top request and one of Wolfe's most sought-after accounts is Elvis Presley. "Elvis's licensing people really like it, but they want to see where it all goes first," he says.

"We honor people by adding them to the line. It's like having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame," says Rebecca Wolfe.

Some experts counter that the product is little more than a gimmick – and one more indication that people will buy just about anything.

Yet Craig Wolfe believes his ducks have real staying power. The flexibility of the duck "medium" allows for constant innovation.

"If you can make it wild enough, crazy enough, unique and different enough, it stays fresh," he says. "We're not taking the same theme and stuffing it with beads."

Fads that faded - and some that still soar

Celebriducks are not the first offbeat collectibles to make a run at mass popularity. A look at a few others, and what has happened to their bids for lasting fame.

Pez dispenser (1952)

When Edward Haas III brought his peppermint company, Pez, from Vienna, Austria, to the US in 1952, he researched how to best market his candy to Americans. He found that children were enamored of the candy dispenser he had developed in 1948. And after learning that kids weren't thrilled with breath mints, he developed fruit-flavored Pez candy and placed cartoon characters' heads - Mickey Mouse, Pop-Eye - on the dispensers. Original list price: 49 cents

Scott McWhinnie, "pez-ident" and CEO of Pez Candy, says Pez dispensers are sold in more than 60 countries and that in the US each year, "more Pez dispensers are sold than there are kids." He attributes his product's success and "continuous growth" to a synergistic effect between the "great-tasting" candy and its collectible, fun dispenser. Still widely available at supermarkets and other stores, a dispenser and three rolls of candy now costs $1.49. The 50th-anniversary commemorative dispenser sells for $19.52.

Pet Rock (1975)

In April 1975, California advertising executive Gary Dahl was out with friends when the conversation turned to pets. After hearing all they had to say about theirs, he noted that his didn't need looking after, and never gave him trouble. The idea for the Pet Rock was born - and the product was introduced at a San Francisco gift show four months later. Original list price: $3.95

After getting wind of an early marketing campaign by Mr. Dahl, Newsweek picked up on the concept and wrote a half-page story. By late October 1975, about 10,000 pet rocks a day were being sold. By Christmas, nearly a million rocks had rolled off shelves. Although many imitations - such as "The Original Pet Rock" - hit the market, the fad faded relatively quickly. Pet Rocks can now be found on eBay for about $9.95 and at www.incrediblegifts.com for $7.50.

Beanie Babies (1993)

Created by H. Ty Warner, who founded Ty Inc. in 1986. The first two Beanies, Brownie and Pinchers (a bear and a lobster, respectively), were unveiled in 1993. A few months later, the company released the rest of the so-called Original Nine at the New York Toy Fair. Original list price: $5

By 1995, Beanie Babies were available nationwide. In early 1996, when many thought the fad would be winding down, sales grew tenfold and the company had to lease three airliners to rush a shipment from overseas to the US. Ty would make a $250 million in 1996. The following year, the company partnered with McDonald's in a Happy Meal promotion, making miniature Teenie Beanies available. Full-sized Beanies are available at small speciality and gift stores and through various websites. "Retired beanies" sometimes sell for thousands of dollars.

Bobblehead doll (early 20th century)

It's hard to trace the history of bobblehead dolls, bobbers, or nodders. One report says that they were invented in China in the 1600s. Michael Lewis, marketing manager of Alexander Global Promotions, says they first surfaced in the US early last century. They grew in poplularity through the 1950s, '60s, and early '70s, but then faded away - until a few years ago. Original list price: $1 to $3

In 1999, Mr. Lewis's company was approached by the San Francisco Giants to create a Willie Mays bobblehead doll. Fans loved it. In the ensuing frenzy, sports teams nationwide ordered the 6- to 7-inch ceramic statuettes of their star players. Limited quantities are given away as promotions while others are sold in souvenir stores and at some larger retailers. Many organizations, from Disney to colleges, now order them. Lewis says that the average price of a bobblehead doll today is between $15 and $20, but some are sold for hundreds of dollars at auctions. This fall, Alexander Global Promotions will launch $4 to $6 miniature bobblehead dolls (4 inches tall) that will be available in stores.

Steven Savides - Staff

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