top of page
  • Writer's pictureDennis Sullivan

Tragedy, risk, failure, success & how to turn around a brand even in the worst of times

The ONE most important question you should always ask

Let me tell you a story about the McVicker family. It’s a story about loss, tragedy, risk and the creation of one of the most successful products in history.

For years, Cleo McVicker headed Kutol Products, a soap manufacturer. Sales grew despite a flu pandemic that infected one-third of the world’s population and took the lives of 675,000 people in the U.S. But as the economy collapsed during the Great Depression, he was facing bankruptcy. Determined to save his business, Cleo hired his brother, Noah, who concocted a non-toxic, non-staining reusable putty that he thought would be ideal for removing the coal residue from paper wallpaper.

Excited about the new possibilities, Cleo approached Kroger Company about carrying the wallpaper cleaning putty in its grocery stores and replacing their current cleaner. Cleo agreed to provide 15,000 cases by Kroger’s deadline even though Kutol Products never manufactured the wallpaper cleaner before. Failure to meet the deadline would mean $5,000 in fines (the equivalent of about $100,000 today). A fine that size would force the company to finally close.

Fortunately, the McVicker brothers made the products in time. Over the next 20 years, the McVickers became the largest wallpaper cleaning putty manufacturer in the world.

But that is not the end of the story…

By the end of World War II, fewer people were buying the putty. The introduction of washable vinyl wallpaper and clean-burning electric, oil and natural gas led to declining sales for the wallpaper cleaning product. Kutol Products, which was run by Cleo’s wife Irma after he died in a tragic plane crash, was facing bankruptcy once again. She hired her son Joe to save the company from its downward spiral at about the same time he learned about his sister-in-law using the same putty they had been selling as wallpaper cleaner for decades to create ornaments and crafts in her students’ nursery school class. His sister-in-law, Kay Zufall, convinced Noah and Joe McVicker to rebrand the cleaning putty as a children’s toy and call it Play-Doh.

The McVicker’s wanted to call it Rainbow Modelling Compound. Fortunately, for them the nursery-school teacher’s suggestion stuck. After a few product demonstrations in Macy’s of New York and Marshall Field’s of Chicago in 1957 and ads on Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo, sales took off.

The story of the McVicker’s and how they had to re-brand and re-create their business as the economy and market conditions change over the years is a powerful lesson even today. No doubt, the McVickers were probably happy selling soap until they had to pivot to a wallpaper cleaning product and then to a children’s toy product. In fact, Kutol Products continues to make soap products today.

The most powerful question you ask right now

What was their secret? It is the same formula we use at Breakthrough Pros that has helped us successfully turnaround and grow dozens of brands. The McVickers created products for what people wanted and needed by beginning first with the most powerful question you can ask right now…

Who? Who is the ideal target market you want to serve?

Once you identify them, you can then determine the problem or pain they are experiencing and the solution you can offer. Notice that if the McVickers began with the question that most owners ask, “What can we sell?” they would have developed another soap product. Instead, they found a problem homeowners wrestled with at the time: How to keep their paper wallpaper clean from the residue created by their coal-powered furnaces. Once they developed a solution to the problem facing their ideal target market, they were able to turn the company around.

For Play-Doh, the ideal target market was nursery-school teachers and moms. The problem: creating craft projects at school or at home. The solution: Offer a putty that was safe for young children that could be used again and again.

3 questions you must ask

Any time you are stuck or trying to turnaround your business ask yourself these 3 questions:

  1. Who? Who is an ideal target market?

  2. What? What challenges or problems are they experiencing?

  3. How? How can we help solve those problems that would make a difference in their lives from which they will benefit?

It’s been the secret of turnarounds for years. While Duluth Trading Co. was on its own downward spiral in 2008, the company asked, “Who? Who are our most profitable and best customers?” They then re-branded its apparel business to focus on comfortable men’s underwear and apparel to appeal to “tradesmen in all of us.”

Youtube got its start as a video-based dating service with the slogan, “Tune in, hook up.” However, people wanted to post and share a wide variety of videos. YouTube quickly pivoted its strategy before it was acquired by Google for $65 billion. Remember Netflix, the DVD mail-order service? As people shifted to watching movies online, so did the company. Most people know Shopify as the website builder for online retailers, but you may not know that the founders actually wanted to launch an online snowboard equipment store called Snowdevil. They didn’t like the existing e-commerce sites on the market so they built their own. The store failed so they asked, “Who could use a new online e-commerce tool?”

We’re seeing more examples of companies adapting right now from car dealers offering home delivery to the NFL draft broadcast from the commissioner’s basement to create the largest audience in history.

Locally, Valley Landscaping Stone & Patio is publishing an Idea Book to help homeowners plan their next backyard project. State Fare Restaurants offers breakfast served all day for pick-up and delivery. Peace of Pizza is partnering with Relay for Life to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Pivot Physical Therapy, whose patients continue to struggle with joint pain, can now get virtual consultations using TeleHelath. Creative Psychological Services & Better World Imaginarium partnered to create a video contest to encourage parents to develop play therapy for kids stuck at home.

Relay for Life events that were traditionally hosted in-person to benefit the American Cancer Society are now virtual events, according to Chrissy Schifkovitz, community development manager. In addition, the Baltimore Hope Lodge, which is offered at no charge to patients visiting the city for cancer treatment, is now providing housing to University of Maryland Medical staff.

These are just a few examples of how businesses are adapting and re-branding as they work to turnaround and grow.

To figure out how you can make a difference that will benefit your target market – and help you re-build, begin first by asking the question, “Who?”

121 views0 comments


bottom of page