return to homepage

Archive for November 13th, 2008

For Over a Century We Have Enjoyed The Taste of an 11 Year Old Boys Invention

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

One cold evening in San Francisco in 1905, 11 year old Frankie Epperson went to bed, forgetting about a fruit drink he had left on the porch. When he awoke the next morning and went out onto the porch the fruit drink, with a stir stick in the cup had frozen during the unseasonable frigid night. Frankie had stumbled into what would evolve into the “popsicle”.

For 18 years Epperson did nothing with his discovery. Finally in 1923 he filed a patent for the “epsicle”, later renamed the “popsicle”. Frank Epperson subsequently sold the rights to his patent to the Joe Howe Company of New York on a royalty basis. Later, Epperson designed the double stick “popsicle” which enabled children to share the treat. His invention was the inspiration for fudgesicles, creamsicles and other frozen sweets delivered to consumers on a birch stick.

The evolution of this range of stick based frozen treats is a classic example of an initial divergent product that provided the seed for a host of convergent extensions. Frank Epperson’s original frozen fruit tasting ice, packaged on a stick was a truly novel invention. Nothing like it existed at that time. The later iterations of the “popsicle”, ice cream, sherbets and fudgesicles simply were convergent products, utilizing the novelty of Epperson’s stick to deliver the product to consumers.

Divergent products typically achieve the greatest commercial success. They are first, novel, create new product categories and often become generically accepted by consumers. Convergent, or knockoff products, also can enjoy commercial success. However, they are typically recognized as simple extensions to the uniquely crafted divergent products that were their predecessor.

Frank Epperson never fully enjoyed the commercial benefits of his invention of the “popsicle”. His tasty frozen treats have sold billions of units. The rights to the brand name and the product have been sold numerous times to various companies and conglomerates. Mr. Epperson died in 1983. He lived a very mundane life, never enjoying the riches his invention provided for others.

Nevertheless, a very aware 11 year old boy, never forgot an accidental confluence of taste, form and nature and provided the world with one of life’s simplest pleasures; the “popsicle”. His invention is an example that age has no bearing on creativity. Entrepreneurs are grown in every stripe, creed, gender and color. Inventiveness knows no boundaries.

A Religious Sect Accidentally Created A Great American Industry

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

During the Civil War years of the 1860’s the Seventh Day Adventists opened the original Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan. This religious group was keenly interested in healthy living and undertook some of the earliest research on the benefits of foodstuffs naturally derived from Native American crops. The result was their creation of the earliest breakfast cereals.

For the rest of the 19th century the Seventh Day Adventists consumed their breakfast cereals made from oats, corn, wheat and sorghum. They never really attempted to fully commercialize their recipes for these cereals.

Their original health institute became the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium. One of the doctors at the sanitarium was named W. K. Kellogg. Dr. Kellogg, a devoted follower of the Seventh Day Adventists, was keenly interested in healthy diet and the effect of diet on sick patients. While seeking a foodstuff to replace bread in the diet of his patients, he stumbled into an answer that created an iconic American industry.

Dr. Kellog was boiling a pot of water that contained wheat. His attention became diverted and the wheat overcooked, thus softening. He removed the softened wheat and let it dry. When he returned later he found that the overcooked wheat had begun to turn brittle. He began to break apart the wheat and it broke off into little flakes. Amazingly, the wheat flakes had a most enticing taste. Dr. Kellogg had accidentally invented the process essential to mass-produce wheat cereals and corn flakes.

Today we know the Kellogg Company as one of America’s great brand names and purveyors of numerous popular breakfast cereals. The Kellogg Company was later followed by C. W. Post and General Mills in making the prepackaged breakfast cereal industry one that is uniquely American.

Dr. Kellogg spent the rest of his life seeking to create healthy products that would improve and extend life. However, the accidental discovery of the process necessary to produce dry cereals is his great legacy. Every day millions of people all over the world start their day with a tasty, nutritious bowl of cereal that owes its provenance to an overcooked pot of wheat.

Many great inventions and product improvements owe their existence to accidents, mistakes that open new doors and plain dumb luck. The key to commercially profiting from these errors is to always keep an open mind in the face of the unexpected. Dr. Kellogg was looking for a new type of bread. His mistake in overcooking a pot of wheat has contributed to making his name one of the most famous in the world.

King Gillette Pioneered the World’s Most Lucrative Sales Model

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

Today we know Gillette to be one of the worlds most successful and highly respected consumer product brand names. The Gillette safety razor is ubiquitous in homes all over the world. The Company is now owned by Proctor & Gamble and continues to introduce new shaving innovations on a regular basis.

King C. Gillette was a travelling salesman, a bit of a bon vivant and a very ambitious entrepreneur. During his travels he fortuitously made the acquaintance of William Painter. Mr. Painter was the inventor of the Crown Cork bottle sealer. His invention was the impetus for the Crown Cork & Seal Company, hugely successful to this day. The inventor was almost messianic in his belief that the key to any successful invention was the ability to repeatedly re-sell the product to the same users. Mr. Gillette became enamored of the concept of “planned obsolescence” and began his quest for an invention that he could commercialize.

One day in 1895 while shaving Mr. Gillette had an idea. At that time shaving was an ungainly affair. The process required a bowl of drawn water, soap, brush, and a straight razor that needed to continually be stropped to maintain sharpness. King Gillette’s brainstorm was to design a razor that held a disposable steel blade. He would sell the razor as a fixture and the blades as refill products, over and over to the same customers.

There was a technical problem, however, that Gillette had to overcome. At that time it was considered near impossible to create a small metal blade that would hold a sharp edge for multiple shaves and be inexpensive. It took six years and the engineering skills of MIT graduate William Nickerson to create the technology to mass-produce disposable razor blades.

King Gillette was nothing if not dogged. However, it took the entry of the United States army into World War I to popularize the Gillette Safety Razor.

Mr. Gillette’s company was able to secure a contract with the government to distribute Gillette Safety Razors to every soldier. By the end of the war 3.5 millions razors and 32 million razor blades had been distributed to soldiers in the field.

When the Armistice to end the war was signed and the American soldiers returned home they imported the Gillette shaving habit with them. There was immediate demand created across the country for Gillette products. The future success of the company was assured and the Gillette brand became a cornerstone of the American consumer product marketplace.

My consumer product marketing consulting firm reviews hundreds of products each year. Recently we had the opportunity to analyze a wonderful beauty product accessory. The inventor had done a wonderful job of crafting the prototype and the features and benefits of the item were of excellent utility. However, the item was a one-time sale. There was no consumable, resale item included in the offering.

We advised the inventor of this obvious, limiting deficiency in the project. Retailers are reluctant to carry single items. Sales would initially spike and then dramatically slow as market penetration occurred. We offered to create a liquid “activator” product to be used in conjunction with the implement. The “activator” would be the razor blade, the hardware implement the equivalent of the Gillette razor. The “activator” was inexpensive to produce, had huge perceived value, completed and embellished the marketing story and offered retailers and the inventor the opportunity for a steady repeat sales stream. The product is now sold in thousands of beauty salons across the United States and in Europe.

The Gillette sales model is now so common that we take it for granted. “Planned obsolescence” is ubiquitous and insures brand loyalty for many years. The key to building a successful brand that consumers treat as generic is often to mate a fixture or implement with a consumable item. Gillette often gives away the razor to insure that the consumer must purchase their proprietary razor blades or cartridges. Ambitious entrepreneurs should always seek to extend their products reach by incorporating King Gillette’s model.