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Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Wonderful IP Story of the "Post-It" Note

Everyone likes to celebrate a good anniversary and 2010 is a rich and fertile source of anniversaries for the IP world. The year 2010 is (more or less) the 30th anniversary of the general launch by the 3M company of one of the great product success stories of recent times--the omipresent, indispensible "Post-It" note. It is worth recounting the tale of the "Post-It" and the multi-textured IP components that have been integral to its success.

The chronology of the "Post-It" on its 30th anniversary was set out in an
advertisement that appeared in the August 16th-29th double issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. The adertisement was cleverly embedded in a funky (yes, even Bloomberg Businessweek can be funky) report on "Popularity". What better way to remind us of the "Post-It" than as a (paid) part of the magazine's description of varied types of popular products, persons, trends, and the like. The chronology of the "Post-It" is as follows:

1968--Dr. Spencer Silver, who was a Senior Scientist at 3M, invents "a unique, repositionable adhesive." It does not appear that there were any immediate product applications in mind.

1971-- Another scientist at 3M, Art Fry, becomes increasingly frustrated at losing his place in the choir hymnal at church. In a moment of innovative epiphany, it seems, he remembered Silver's invention.

1977--Fry manages to produce enough "Post-It" notes for corporate headquarters. The employees immediately become "hooked" on the notes.

1978--The product is tested in Boise, Idaho; 90% of those who were shown the notes replied that they would buy it if it were commercially available. The "Post-It" is on its commercial way.

1979--"Post-It" notes are made available in 11 states in the American West. The notes are sent to persons outside of the 11-state, limited-launch intake.

1980--"Post-It" notes are put on sale nationally in the U.S. No less a personality than Lee Iacocca, the iconic (then) CEO of Chrysler, among other Fortune 500 chief executives, personally writes to 3M to say how much he loves the product.

1981--"Post-It" notes are made available in Canada and Europe.

1990--The product celebrates its 10th anniversary, and the product appears on numerous lists of the most popular consumer products of the 1980s.

1999--There are over 600 "Post-It" products and the technology is applied to other 3M products.

2010-- The 30th anniversay of the product is reached. There are now over 1,000 "Post-It" products, which are sold in more than 150 countries world-wide.

 So much for chronology--what about IP? There are a number of distinctive aspects to the "Post-It" story.

First, there is the underlying patented invention. The advertisement describes the invention as being "a break-through innovation in search of a problem." That sounds like something one would say about an invention discovered at Bell Labs in its heyday. It remains a source of fascination to this day how 3M, a company famous for its ability to successfully commercialize product innovation, not only seems to have fostered inventive activity without the requirement that there be any immediate payback, but it also created a work culture that enabled the invention to be commercialized at a much later date.

Second, the enduring strength of the "Post-It" mark, as well as its original canary yellow color, is a textbook example of how a product can build sufficient goodwill so as to enable the product (and cognate products ) to continue to succeed after the patent has expired. Unlike say, "NutraSweet", which continues to leverage the brand for the same artificial sweetner product, long after the patent expired, "Post-It" seems to have used the name as the platform for a variety of products, not all of which make use of the original invention (just think of the on-line version of the "Post-It" note).

Third, the viral aspect of the initial product launch in the 11 Western states is particularly interesting. In 2010, we tend to talk of viral marketing in terms of online or word-of-mouth communication. Here, in the prehistoric days before Twitter, Facebook, and even Google, people seem to have taken the time to go to the post office and to send the "Post-It" product to their friends outside of the initial launch area.

Fourth, there is the matter of the sponsors of the advertisement. If the left-hand page of the advertisement is all about 3M, the right-hand page is all about Office Depot ("Who knows more about making things stick than 3M? .... Look for them at "Office Depot".). I find curious this example of an iconic-branded product joining advertising forces with a major distribution retail platform for its products. If co-branding is about a "win-win" situation, I have difficulty in articulating why Office Depot wishes to promote a product that can be purchased elsewhere. Any readers' thoughts on this are welcome by this Kat.

More about anniveraries here.

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