Accidental Brands

Get this episode from Under the Influence: Accidental Brands (Season 1, Episode 11) - EP - CBC Radio

Subscribe to the podcast free to have each new episode delivered to your computer every week. After 2 weeks, past episodes of Under the Influence will become available for purchase on iTunes.


It may surprise you to know that many famous brands were invented completely by accident.

They weren't the result of years of research, or painstaking experiments, or scientific brilliance - they were simply stumbled upon by mistake.

Like IMDB, or the Internet Movie Data Base, that began as a list of pretty actresses compiled by a movie buff. Or one of the most famous toys of all time, which started life as a wallpaper cleanser. A famous frozen treat was invented when a flash freeze surprised the residents of San Francisco one night. A certain breakfast cereal was originally invented in a sanatorium to repress sexual urges - and speaking of lust - Viagra was created for completely non-sexual reasons - then became a wonder drug.

Each is famous, their stories are fascinating, and all are accidental brands.

When I was a kid in the 60s, I loved comic books.

And along with Batman and Superman, I worshipped another superhero.

His name was... The Flash.

Source: YouTube

The Flash is seen by many to be the first superhero of the Silver Age of comic books. But he holds another distinction.

The Flash was the first major superhero to get his super powers by accident. He didn't come from another planet, he wasn't born with superhuman skills, he simply inhaled chemicals by mistake one night, and that accident granted him the ability to run at speeds greater than the speed of light.

That storyline has a cousin in the world of marketing.

Many of the super brands we have come to know were discovered completely by accident. They weren't created to solve a problem, they weren't pursued by inventors trying to perfect a new product, they weren't even the result of years of research.

They gained their super powers by complete and utter fluke - and happened to become major multi-million dollar products in the process.

They were Accidental Brands.

Take Col Needham. He was a movie nut.

Col Needham.jpgSource: Google Images

One day, in 1989, the 22 year-old Brit posted a simple text file titled, "Those Eyes" listing beautiful actresses. He was also a big fan of this actor:

Source: YouTube

So he started another text file that collected Cary Grant movies. Soon, he expanded it to include other actors and their films. As "The List" expanded, Needham created software that allowed users to search the database.

In 1993, he decided to start IMDB, or the Internet Movie Data Base website, and soon found his traffic doubling every two weeks.

IMDB page.jpgSource: Google Images

One day, the New York Times called. It was at that moment Col Needham realized he might have accidentally stumbled upon an actual business idea.

So in 1996, he incorporated IMDB. Today, it boasts 57 million unique visitors every month.

imdb-logo.jpgSource: Google Images

And it all started from a simple list of beautiful actresses that accidentally became one of the most successful websites in the world.

kutol wall cleaner.jpgSource: Google Images

Back in the 1920s, a man named Cleo McVicker worked for the Kutol Products company. Kutol specialized in soaps and cleansing products, but it wasn't doing well.

At that time, houses were heated with coal, and that left a lot of soot in homes as a result. In 1933, Kroger Grocery Stores asked Kutol to supply a product that could clean soot off wallpaper.

Kutol didn't have a product like that, but in short order, they managed to invent a pliable, putty-like substance that easily removed the soot from dirty wallpaper. It rescued the Kutol Products company from going under, and it sold well until the 1950s.

But after the Second World War, people started heating their homes with oil and gas, which was much cleaner than coal. On top of that, wallpaper started to be made from vinyl, which could easily be cleaned with soap and water.

That was bad news for Kutol. It made their wallpaper product obsolete, sales began to decline, and the company was again headed for bankruptcy.

As fate would have it, the owner's sister-in-law, a nursery school teacher, heard that some people were using Kutol's wallpaper putty for arts and crafts projects.

So Kutol took some of the compound, removed the cleansing agent, and sent it over to her school.

When she reported back that it was a big hit with the kids, Kutol took the raw compound, put it into cans, and re-named it "Play-Doh."

play-doh_original_canister.jpgSource: Google Images

One year later, Macy's of New York and Marshall Fields of Chicago opened accounts with them.

The company wanted to roll Play-Doh out nationally, but they didn't have enough money to advertise it. So they managed to get a meeting with Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo.

Source: YouTube

He showed Keeshan the Play-Doh, explained they had no money to advertise it, but if Keeshan was willing to use Play-Doh once a week on Captain Kangaroo, the McVickers' were willing to give him 2% of the sales generated.

The Captain agreed, and Play-Doh became a national advertiser:

Source: YouTube

By 1958, sales of Play-Doh surpassed $3 million dollars. A "Play-Doh Pete" character was added to the logo in 1960, and a few years later, Pete would become a TV mascot:

Source: YouTube

More than 2 billion cans of Play-Doh have been sold since 1955, and 95 million cans are still sold every year. Play-Doh has been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, and is #24 on the list of the 100 most memorable toys of the 20th century.

It is one of the most famous toy brands in the world, and it all began accidentally when kids started playing with a wallpaper cleaning putty.

Way back in 1991, three scientists who worked at Pfizer in England discovered that certain chemical compounds were useful in treating heart problems such as angina.

viagra.jpgSource: Google Images

They patented their new drug, and called it Sildenafil. It was to be a real breakthrough in heart disease treatment, as it increased blood flow to the heart muscle and lowered blood pressure.

But, in the clinical trials, while Sildenafil was helping the heart, something else came up.

It greatly increased the amount of blood flow to the genitals in all the male patients who had participated in the trials. Therefore, a larger clinical trial was arranged on men aged 19 to 87. The tests again proved conclusive - Sildenafil was an okay heart drug, but it was a blockbuster penile drug.

So Pfizer completely changed its course and decided to pursue that direction.

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Food and Drug Administration gave its approval of Sildenafil Citrate, and it was introduced to the pharmaceutical market under the trade name "Viagra."

It was at this point that Pfizer made an interesting branding decision. They chose to "re-frame" the problem they were solving.

Instead of using the word "impotence" in their marketing, which was an extremely negative word with men, they instead called the condition, "erectile dysfunction." That small change in verbiage meant a big change in the marketing.

First, it got rid of the humiliation of impotence, and suggested that erectile dysfunction was a temporary condition that could be corrected.

Almost everyone in Canada will remember the very first Viagra TV commercial they saw:

Source: YouTube

Love this commercial, too:

Source: YouTube

And I worked on the sound for this commercial:

Source: YouTube

Since then, over 35 million men worldwide have used Viagra.

Source: YouTube

Competitors like Cialis and Levitra entered the market around 2007 to give Viagra some stiff competition.

But Viagra still commands a 60% share of the $3.2 billion dollar worldwide market today.

It is one of the biggest "accidental" brands of our time.

Speaking of lust in your loins...

Back in 1894, a strict Seventh-Day Adventist, and superintendant of the Battle Creek Sanatorium, believed that feeding his patients bland food would suppress feelings of lust.

One day that year, the superintendent and his younger brother accidentally left some cooked wheat uncovered in the kitchen when they had to attend to more pressing matters. When they returned, they discovered it had gone stale.

Not wanting to waste anything, they put it through the roller anyway, hoping to salvage long sheets of dough. But instead, they were left with flakes.

So they roasted those flakes, and served them to the patients. The flakes turned out to be very popular.

kellogg founders.pngSource: Google Images

So the younger brother, Will Keith Kellogg, told his older brother, John Harvey Kellogg, that he wanted to apply for a patent for "Flaked Cereal and a Process for Preparing Same," and was granted one on April 14th, 1896.

Will Keith, who served as the business manager of the sanatorium, decided to try and mass market their accidental discovery to the public. So he experimented with other grains, and started the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1906.

By 1922, it was renamed the Kellogg Company, and began a remarkable climb to become one of the most successful companies in the cereal category.

In 1957, the Corn Flakes brand got its mascot:

Source: YouTube

Corn Flakes even went to the moon with the Apollo II astronauts on their historic mission in 1969. And it's been on breakfast tables ever since.

Source: YouTube

From that one accident in the Battle Creek Sanatorium back in 1894, Kelloggs Corn Flakes is now manufactured in 18 countries and marketed in 180 countries around the world.

One evening, back in1905, Frank Epperson (shown below at 78, with his granddaughter) was sitting on his porch in San Francisco.

frank-epperson.jpgSource: Google Images

He was mixing a powdered flavouring for soda with water in a cup, using a stick to stir the concoction. Frank left it there on the porch, and went in for the evening. But as fate would have it, the temperatures dropped to a record low that night.

The next morning, Epperson discovered the drink had frozen to the stick. He liked the taste of it, and he named it an "Eppsicle." It was a big hit with his school friends.

Oh, by the way, did I mention that Frank Epperson was 11 years old at the time?

Eighteen years later, Frank Epperson was serving "Eppsicles" to his own kids, and seeing again how much they loved the product, he decided to try selling it. He sold the pop on a stick at Neptune Beach, an amusement park in Alameda, California, and it was a hit there, too.

He applied for a patent for his "handled frozen confection" in 1924. The very next year, Epperson got into financial trouble, and sold the rights to the Popsicle to the Joe Lowe Company of New York.

It was originally available in seven flavours, and was marketed as a "frozen drink on a stick."

During the Great Depression, the "twin popsicle" was invented, so two children could share an ice pop for just a nickel.

double popsicle.jpgSource: Google Images

In April of 1939, a mascot was invented called "Popsicle Pete." It debuted on the radio program, "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century."

The Popsicle is a part of almost everyone's childhood, and Popsicle Pete made an appearance in Popsicle marketing until 1995:

Source: Retroontario

The most popular flavour is Cherry, and to this day, over 2 billion Popsicles are sold annually.

Frank Epperson died in 1983 at the age of 89. He had left a cup of soda on the porch overnight.

And accidentally invented one of the most beloved treats in the world - at the age of 11.

Mark Twain (below) was once asked to name the greatest inventor of all time.

Mark Twain.jpgSource: Google Images

He answered: "Accident."

The greatest thing about accidents is that they help us make connections that are beyond our grasp.

So many of the greatest inventions of our time were created completely by serendipity - where the inventors were either searching for something else, were trying to accomplish another goal or were on the brink of disaster.

What's even more fascinating is that these super brands now generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually, are heavily researched and advertised, intricately planned, and are strategically presided over by thousands of people worldwide.

Yet, each started life as a mistake, or as an accident, or the flash of an afterthought.

Which only goes to prove that not all progress is deliberate...

...when you're under the influence.

Comments are closed.