Crazes are not meant to make sense. But while they are with us, there is serious money to be made.
What's so great about a pack of fags emblazoned with a skull and crossbones that scream 'You're gonna die' all over the place? Can anyone on the planet, Professor Rubik included, still solve that irritating little cube (without the aid of a screwdriver)? Who cares whether or not their doll was found under a cabbage leaf with adoption papers in its nappy?
And which marketing genius decided that a mixture of iffy tequila, fruit juice and huge amounts of sugar called 'Barking Frog' was exactly what the masses wanted? Well, cast your mind back a few years - at some point, all these largely forgotten fads were seized upon as pretty important matters of public debate. But, for all their frothy ephemera these crazes are businesses that can be managed like anything else. Moreover, they can be incredibly lucrative: mass hysteria and stupidity can make a real difference to a business' bottom line.
For those who haven't been paying attention, the current craze is the Teletubbies (whose unintelligible warblings have merited around 2,000 press mentions over the last year). In the near future we can confidently look forward to the Beanie Babies (stuffed beanbag animals) which have already taken the US by storm. Currently hot stateside are the 'exclusive to the UK' Britannia Beanie Baby and Princess Beanie Baby (which naturally donates to the Diana memorial fund). What's more, to provide a welcome note of continuity for those who find paradigm shifts a little rough, there are even Beanie Baby Teletubbies.
All pretty daft, right? Well yes, but that is the nature of crazes - they're not meant to make sense. They're largely (but not wholly) confined to the notoriously emotive children's markets and it's worth remembering the UK toy market alone is worth around £800 million a year. A bit like earthquakes, our ability to predict crazes is improving, although they often catch us totally unawares. 'Us' can even include those who sell the things. Explains Gerry Masters, secretary of the British Association of Toy Retailers (BATR), 'While a craze only happens with the right recipe and the right products, it often happens without us actually doing anything.' The biggest promoters of a craze, he maintains, are the media: 'We thought Teletubbies would be a modest but nice product selling to kids. But then all that publicity about baby language came along, putting the programme in the limelight.' Pretty soon, he adds, this exposure and the programme's early morning slot meant that tired clubbers and students had adopted the Tubbies, appreciating their surreal world for altogether different reasons. With this sudden adult awareness, the toys were snapped up, creating shortages which the media went on to publicise, whipping up further demand.
So, let's say you've got a product that looks like it's about to 'go crazy' - what should you do? Tread carefully, warns Nigel James, head of account planning at advertisers BMP: 'We used to advertise Clarks desert boots.' Never particularly fashionable, these had been selling at the same, fairly low level for years, 'Then sales went up 500% almost overnight.' By chance, they had become the footwear of choice for stylish young things and BMP saw a craze to be handled delicately. 'The trick here was not to be seen to be mass-market advertising. We almost secreted advertising around, putting little postcards in shops and advertising in a few really extreme style periodicals.' That way, he says, BMP didn't frighten off the youthful hipsters who were spearheading the craze, but by carefully managing awareness 'kept life' in the cult.'
Chris Wood, chairman and managing director of CLK.MLK, a consultancy specialising in new products and brands makes a similar point: 'The issue is "Is this a quick come and go?" - do you milk it or use a "build strategy" because it will be big in the long term?' CLK.MLK was involved in Wispa, which they knew was going to be big, but 'we had no idea how big'. And when a business gets the kind of dream response that Wispa received, he says, 'there's really no clever answer'. That said, the company must assess demand longevity: 'Some demand curves are likely to drop off very quickly and companies who scale up production are left thinking "Christ. We just got the new factory in place".' So there's no point in planning for the long-term future if there isn't going to be one. Regardless, the next thing is 'to move bloody quickly - when you had a new product in days gone by, within a year or two, supermarkets would have an own-label rip-off. Now it's more like a week or two. You have to act fast even in your home market.'
Another mistake made, usually by smaller companies, is to assume they can do it all by themselves - they usually can't. 'It's better to have a smaller slice of a bigger cake,' says Woods. For example, a small toy company with correspondingly small resources would often be better off going to a giant and saying: 'You do it and we'll take 5%'. It can be better to give something away to preserve lead and potential, rather than be effortlessly overtaken. Woods also warns against trying to 'surf a craze' too late. After the terrific success of Golden Wonder's Pot Noodles, a number of clients approached CLK.MLK saying 'Do us one of them'. After the third request the company refused: 'With crazes,' he cautions, 'don't get seduced into coming in third or fourth, no matter how good your ideas are. It won't save you.' Those seeking a recent reality check need only look at how many survivors remain from the alcopops free-for-all (see box, page 60).
Like many other marketing phenomena, original thought need not be a factor with fads - reinvention plays a big part. Thanks to the series' re-run on television, Thunderbird's Tracey Island won BATR toy of the year in 1993. Similarly, Action Man was missing in action for a number of years before reappearing in his extreme-sports-fanatic, non-killer, 90s guise.
He presently boasts sales of over £100 million.
The Beanie Babies are only beanbag animals, hardly a great innovation.
And yet British interest is already so great that the company, Ty Europe, is no longer taking calls. Then there are objects for which there is a perennial low level of demand, that suddenly explode across our shelves - the sleepers of the consumer world. The yo-yo is tipped to big this summer, we are told. And, although you never know, the best a business can hope for is that something which has captured the public imagination and has decidedly craze-like attributes will turn out to be far, far more important. After all, the Filofax, long a tool of the scientific community, blossomed along with Thatcher's yuppies and then stuck around; likewise, Levi's 501 jeans, which had all the makings of a fashion flash in the pan managed, with the aid of one of the greatest advertising campaigns ever, to turn themselves into a long-lived marketing phenomenon. But for all this, companies need to be careful. For while ephemeral crazes can be pretty bad, failed crazes are far worse in every sense. There are, after all, few things more risible than a warehouse full of unwanted Sinclair C5s.
THE FAD FROM DOWN UNDER THAT TURNED FROM TRIUMPH TO DISASTER
Not long ago the sickly-sweet alcopops wave broke and finally - to the relief of many - rolled back: drinkers five years hence will no doubt be asking themselves whatever possessed them to ditch bottled beers and ciders in favour of brands like Barking Frog, Space Doubt and Vixen, all of which have now been discontinued.
Alcopops originated in Australia where an alcoholic lemonade, Two Dogs, had been around for some time. Merrydown began importing the brand in 1995 and, shortly afterwards, Bass Brewers came up with their own brand, Hoopers Hooch, another lemonade. This, says Hooch spokesman Stuart Cain, 'took off in response to a massive demand'. The rest, as they say, is history: alcopops clearly struck a chord with younger - in some cases too young - drinkers, muscling into a market previously dominated by ciders.
Supermarkets brought out their own brands and pub and off-licence shelves were soon groaning under the weight of the gooey, lurid-coloured concoctions. Starting from nothing, the alcopop market was, at its peak, worth £350 million a year.
As we know, alcopops were doomed on two fronts. Firstly, many of them were genuinely revolting. Secondly, there was mounting concern that they were aimed at kids. The powers that be doubtless felt they had enough problems refusing all the drugs they were being offered without contending with youth-orientated booze as well. By late last year the writing was on the wall: a number of alcopops were withdrawn because of their perceived youth appeal; excise duties were ramped up and the upmarket JD Wetherspoon's pub chain ditched them altogether.
Unsurprisingly, a survivor is Hooper's Hooch. One of the first in, it has now 'grown up' and lost its grinning lemon mascot, along with some of its sugar content. Cain believes that Hooch, which still sells slightly over 2 million bottles a week, down from a peak of 2.5 million now 'has a legitimate place in the market and a long future ahead of it, unlike the "me-too" products that were found hanging onto shirt-tails of alcopops'.
THE PIED PIPER OF HAMLEYS
For such a phenomenal success, Buzz Lightyear's initial timing wasn't all that great - Disney's Toy Story was released around Easter 1996, hardly the traditional toy-buying season. Buzz's sales were good, but things didn't really pick up until Disney released the video in the autumn.
'The video,' says Michael Osbourne, buying director for Disney Stores Europe, 'has a very, very high repeat viewing value.' So naturally, kids, having watched Buzz again and again, wanted the toys. It was also around this time that the press started to talk about the big Christmas toy and decided Mr Lightyear was the man for the job.
'It all drove demand, culminating on Christmas Eve when The Big Breakfast did an outside broadcast about the shortage. 'The shortages, of course, were massive: parents were queueing from 5am and Buzzes were changing hands at many times their nominal value. For all this, Buzz has been relatively long-lived. An 'improved' model which appeared at the end of January '97 sold well. And, although the hype had died down, Disney Stores sold more over Christmas '97 than they had the previous year. Osborne says that Lightyear 'sells well, and will keep going'. There are plans afoot to make a second Toy Story film. Those who question the power of sequel merchandising need only look to Star Wars.
A PRINCESS DIED, A NATION MOURNED AND DEMAND SURGED BY 300%
Perhaps surprisingly, the death of the Princess of Wales had a number of interesting economic effects - £200 million is thought to have been lost from GDP; there was a 1% drop in retail spending and a commensurate reduction in pressure to raise interest rates. And then there was the flower industry which, if the sea of blossoms around Kensington Palace was anything to go by, effectively experienced a craze. Was coping a problem for the nation's florists?
Those who did experience a serious run on their flowers were the London florists, especially those close to Kensington and St James's Palaces - Watkins & Watkins near St James's reported four to five times Mother's Day business, while Longhams in Holborn (which supplied Diana's wedding flowers) saw a 300% surge in demand. Florists like these were taking on temporary staff, getting down to New Covent Garden Market at 3am and then working through until eight at night. Naturally, there were also big shortages of certain flowers - white lilies, for example.
Nationwide the picture was a little different: there was certainly a big upsurge in demand - flower sales for the four-week period around Diana's death stood at £43 million, some £6 million up on the same period the previous year, a rise of 17%. But, says Caldecourt, the whole industry is geared up to deal with exactly this kind of thing: 'Diana's funeral was nowhere near Mothers' Day, when sales normally rise by 70%. Then you have Valentine's Day, the Christmas period and the religious holidays.' Other factors also helped to make the demand less overwhelming than it might have seemed: Diana's death was at the end of the wedding season but before autumn/winter demand really kicked in. In addition, a lot of other events were cancelled because the nation was in mourning. A large number of native blooms were around at that time of year. And, unlike some other goods, if buyers can't get a certain type of flowers, they'll generally buy another.