Wonderful World of Marketing, Episode 31: Everyone Knows it’s Slinky

Question: What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, and makes a slinkety sound?

If you answered, “self-aware robot tube socks,” you should seek professional help. If, however, you answered “Slinky,” then I commend you for your arcane knowledge of mid-20th century commercial jingles.

Today we take a break from our modern marketing series to look at a decidedly non-modern marketing effort: namely, how Richard and Betty James transformed 98 coils of blue-black Swedish steel into one of the most successful toys of all time.

It’s a fascinating story that exemplifies core marketing concepts, and the powerful emotional appeal of objects. And, it’s also a great story of female entrepreneurship and leadership.

The story started in 1943 when Richard James saw a spring fall to the floor in the wartime shipyard in which he was working. He came home that night and said to his wife Betty “I think I can make a toy out of this.”

Betty paged through a dictionary and picked out the word “Slinky” for the new toy because she thought it best described the sinuous movement of the spring toy.

The James’ put 400 Slinkys in Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia just before Christmas 1945, and the rest is history. They sold all 400 in 90 minutes at $1/each. They would go on to sell 300 million Slinkys — enough to circle the globe 150 times. It was a toy sensation, and the James’ had it made.

That is, until 1960 when Richard freaked out, joined a religious cult in Bolivia, and abandoned his wife and 6 children — leaving the company to Betty to run. That’s when the story gets interesting.

Betty “sprung” into action and took over the company … and introduced the “Slinky Dog” which revitalized the business and cemented Slinky in the imagination and memory of millions of Baby Boomers. And then in 1995 the Slinky Dog got a new lease on life with the release of Pixar‘s Toy Story. Slinky was a sensation again for a whole new generation of kids, and just in time to ride the Millennial Baby Boom. They also sold 800,000 Slinky Dogs in 1995 alone, which ain’t half bad.

Betty was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 2001 — the same year in which Pennsylvania legislators named it the official state toy.

Read all about it in Betty’s great NY Times obit: Link

Fair warning: you’ll be humming the Slinky jingle the rest of the day. Proceed at your own risk. And, as always, let me know what you think @gradconn.

(Incidentally, you can buy a Slinky on Amazon for about $5, roughly half the cost — in real dollars — of the original 1945 Slinky. You simply can’t afford not to pick up a couple.)