Silly Putty came into being during World War II when a General Electric engineer mixed boric acid with silicone oil in an attempt to create a synthetic rubber for automobile tires. The invention flopped as a tire material, but the bizarre liquid-and-solid properties caused a sensation when a toy store began packaging and selling it in plastic eggs in 1949.
After the owners of the toy store decided against launching a national marketing campaign, an impoverished entrepreneur by the name of Peter Hodgson acquired the rights to the toy in 1950. Although Silly Putty's strongest appeal was initially to adults, within five years of Hodgson's stewardship the market had shifted to kids between the ages of 6 and 12. Following Hodgson's death (as a multimillionaire) in 1976, Easton, PA-based Binney & Smith, which holds the Crayola brand, acquired the putty. Although Silly Putty was a very small part of Binney & Smith’s business, it was not an insignificant one. In one year alone (1987), the crayon company sold 2 million Silly Putty eggs.
Eventually, however, other companies found they could make similar compounds for less money, and Silly Putty began losing market share to other tactile toys. Although Binney & Smith introduced a new version of Silly Putty in 1995, which changed color with body temperature, and a metallic gold putty to commemorate the product’s golden anniversary in 2000, market share continued to slip.
Recognizing an opportunity to rescue a fading brand, Funrise Toy Corp. of Woodland Hills, California, approached Binney & Smith in 2002 with the idea of linking Silly Putty to the entertainment industry. The toy company, which already had a marketing agreement with Marvel Comics, proposed packaging Silly Putty with Marvel, DC and Warner Bros. comic characters. Binney & Smith liked the idea, and the two companies negotiated a brand licensing agreement the same year.
Funrise’s vice-president of marketing David Schwartz explains, “We recognized that Silly Putty by itself was not that compelling. By adding Spiderman, Superman, Scooby Doo, and Looney Tunes to the package we [hoped to] energize the brand.” The idea is not completely original, however. In his book Brandchild, Martin Lindstrom notes that many other toy companies have chosen to link their products with the entertainment industry to add “life” to the product. Bob the Builder, for example, has been a television show, a game, a toy, and a traveling road show. And the practice of linking toys to the entertainment industry has been popular in Japan since the 1970s, according to Lindstrom (Kogan Page, 2003).
For as long as Silly Putty had existed, one of its strongest appeals had been its ability to pick up images from comic books that could later be distorted by stretching the putty. In the 1950s, comic books were printed on hot presses with inks that were compatible with Silly Putty's formulation. By contrast, today's comics are produced on cold presses with soy ink, and the images do not transfer to Silly Putty nearly as easily. Confronting the problem head on, Funrise located an old-style hot press in Asia and began using it to print mini-comic books, which they packaged with the putty.
Although Schwartz believes that the comic characters have given new life to Silly Putty, he feels the Silly Putty brand remains key to the repackaged product’s success. “If this were just a superhero putty package, it might be somewhat successful. But we believe there is real equity in the name ‘Silly Putty,’ ” he says.
Funrise’s Silly Putty currently sells for US$3.99 to $4.99 compared to Binney & Smith’s 99-cent package (which remains on the market). But Schwartz insists there’s a fair amount of difference between the two products. “Our packaging is much more substantial; we give the customer molding plates, a comic book with images that can be lifted from the page, a larger egg sculpted with a comic book character, and more putty,” he says.
Funrise has also introduced an activity center designed to enhance Silly Putty playtime. “We want to find ways to do business at higher retail -- $10 or $15 -- using Silly Putty as the basis for some kind of activity," says Schwartz. "With our activity center, you have a one-stop shop with three eggs, an extruder, a roller, a comic transfer template and a storage compartment for the molding plates." Funrise's Silly Putty Activity Center is sold at Toys R Us, Blockbuster and Kmart.
There was initially some speculation that the repackaged product might also appeal to the adult market, and Schwartz says he recently read an article that said some adults keep Silly Putty on their desk to relieve stress. But he adds, “I still think this is a kid-directed product.”
One of the traditional challenges facing the toy industry has been how to do more business in the first half of the year until sales pick up at Christmastime. With Silly Putty, the toy company may have found an answer: because the product’s selling price appeals to impulse buyers, Silly Putty generates income year round.
According to Schwartz, the repackaged product has also been a hit with retailers. The traditional product had a much lower retail price and sales margin, and with Funrise’s product, retail stores stand to maximize sales per square foot.
Silly Putty was not Funrise’s first experience with brand licensing. “We partnered with Hasbro five years ago to do a strategic alliance with Tonka,” notes Schwartz. “The stores were happy to get their toys from an aggressive, lean and mean toy company. They were getting products for less money than if they were buying them from a Mattel or Hasbro.” Other brand licenses, including one for GI Joe, followed.
Says Schwartz, “Partnering with a brand like Silly Putty is like a good marriage in that you need to be able to bring things to the brand that the brand doesn’t possess presently. The brand needs to have some kind of push, some kind of creative thought process that it's not getting presently from those who are the stewards of the brand. Extending a brand requires creative thinking. Stewards need to recognize their limitations and partner with those who can address those limitations effectively.”
Privately-held Funrise has not disclosed recent sales figures, but the company has reportedly had millions of new orders since introducing the new packaging. With Funrise's help, the gooey stuff seems likely to appeal to kids for at least another generation.