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.
SAN RAFAEL, CALIF.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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.)