Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The 200 Million Dollar Brand

Ron writes:

 Star Wars was a pretty big movie. It probably qualified as a cultural phenomenon.

But you know that, right?

I mean, here we are over 40 years later and you're reading a blog post about obscure Star Wars ephemera. Nobody understands the cultural impact of Star Wars better than you, a card-carrying member of the nerdlinger elite, and probably one of the four people who paid to see Solo in the theater.

So big was Star Wars that it vaulted the aforementioned toy company, Kenner, a mid-level operation run out of Cincinnati, Ohio, to national prominence.

Kenner did over 200 million dollars in sales during 1978 alone, nearly doubling its volume of three years prior.

Obviously, the bulk of that volume was Star Wars.

If you're Kenner president Joe Mendelsohn, you're proud of moving over $200M in product. So proud that you make the achievement the focus of your first "Sales Force Bulletin," released in January of 1979.

Above you see a copy of that bulletin, which includes Joe's immortal prediction that "I think this paper will be fun!"

Well, I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it "fun," a word I normally reserve for inventing derogatory nicknames for random people at the mall, but it's certainly pretty interesting.

Of particular interest is the art that graces its front cover. It presents Joe's congratulatory message in graphic terms.

That art also appeared on a special print provided to employees. An example is featured above. It was printed on deluxe textured paper at a size larger than the standard 8.5" x 11". The cream-colored sheet you see below the print was intended to protect its surface from abrasions.

When your print comes with a protective cover sheet, you know it's high class.

Although Star Wars claims a prominent space within the print's design, homage is also paid to other Kenner properties of the time, such as Stretch Monster, the Easy Bake Oven, and the Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barbershop. The latter product allowed aspiring right-wing children to practice the forcible shaving of hippies. Hey, if your big sister was dating one of those dirtbags, you'd want to shave them too.

Interestingly, the print's R2-D2 may have been based on the conceptual model of the small R2 action figure that Kenner used to represent the product early in the production process. That's what is suggested by its unusual shape, at any rate. Note that the X-Wing featured on the print looks pretty much exactly like the production toy. Not that R2, though.

Lest any of Kenner's faithful employees find the print unsatisfying, the company also issued a mug commemorating the $200M milestone.

Interestingly, it can be found in at least three different formats. This second one has an hourglass shape that prevents the graphics from printing squarely. The graphic seems oddly skewed on the majority of examples that I've seen.

This third example features a little ridge in its lower portion.

It's possible that each format corresponds to a different production run. Or maybe they made all three versions at the same time? I don't think anyone knows for sure.

November 27, 1978 was the Monday following that year's Thanksgiving. Presumably, that's the date on which Kenner's shattering of the $200M barrier was made official.

Interestingly, and somewhat tangentially, November also saw Kenner's hosting of a "Star Wars is Forever" meeting. It was at this meeting that the company's Sales force was propagandized into believing that George Lucas would never stop making Star Wars movies and that Kenner would never stop selling Star Wars toys. Above you see Boba Fett himself gently persuading the Sales force of the foreverness of Star Wars.

Remember that, in the late '70s, movie merchandising was in its infancy; it was virtually unheard of for a movie to serve as a long-term platform for toys. Yet Kenner was banking on selling Star Wars stuff for years. The strategy probably warranted a little propagandizing. And though Kenner's first foray into Star Wars ended unceremoniously in 1985 after everyone finally admitted that the Droids and Ewoks cartoons were irredeemably lame, Star Wars returned with a vengeance a mere 10 years later, and it hasn't disappeared since.

So, heck, maybe Star Wars really is forever and will survive even that part in The Last Jedi where Luke Skywalker milks a walrus.

Hey, in case you haven't made the connection, I'm guessing that Boba Fett's appearance at this Sales meeting was connected to his visit to Kenner HQ, during which he posed for the photograph that was eventually used on the blister card of the character's action figure. You can read Chris Georgoulias' write-up of this visit here. Obviously, that's the official Lucasfilm-created costume you see in the above photos of the meeting, and not something hacked together by Kenner's model shop.

There was probably a bit of trepidation around Kenner in early 1979 and 1980. After all, the company's status as a top-tier player largely depended on Star Wars. If enthusiasm for the franchise dipped, or if -- God forbid -- The Empire Strikes Back bombed, Kenner was in trouble.

But the company had a lot of non-Star Wars product, too. Foreverist optimism aside, Kenner couldn't afford to become The Star Wars Company.

You can sense that fine line being walked in the below "Sales Force Bulletin," the follow-up to the issue featured at the start of this article.

If in the inaugural issue Kenner's president had offered the carrot of congratulations, in the second issue its VP of Marketing offered the stick of withering downtalk.

In brief, his message to the Sales force was: "Yeah, Star Wars is hot, but we have a lot of other product, and those Butch and Sundance toys ain't gonna sell themselves, slacker."

My favorite part: "You have not done your job if the non-Star Wars part of the order does not meet the requirements. You have allowed the account to buy -- you haven't sold."

Sheesh. It's a message worthy of Boba Fett himself. You get the sense that disintegrations might be in order should Fuzzy Pumper sales fail to meet expectations. I can imagine this guy asking disappointing Sales people to return their commemorative mugs. Because commemorative mugs are for closers.

The bar graph featured on the bulletin's cover only upped the pressure. Not content with a mere $200M in sales, Kenner was shooting for $300M in 1979. And that was without the benefit of a new Star Wars movie.

Did they meet the goal? Honestly, I'm not sure.

But this article, from a June 1980 issue of The Jackson News, reveals that Kenner sold over $100M of Star Wars product in 1979, matching the Star Wars-specific volume of 1978.

That's alotta space doodads. Enough to make Kenner the number-two toy company in America, behind only Mattel.

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