Having ‘walked the dog’ and attempted to ‘rock the baby’ with our SHARP YOYOs – while getting to grips with the three swings of GEN Y – our thoughts turned to how a spinning bit of plastic on a piece of string came to be so popular.

Wasn’t it a hunting weapon or an ancient greek religious offering? History says yes. It’s just a kid’s toy or street art, like juggling, isn’t it? Yes, that too. But what’s missing here is the most interesting thing of all. The YOYO is an incredible marketing phenomenon. Here’s why…

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The marketing genius behind the YOYO

An American entrepreneur called Donald F. Duncan, Sr saw an opportunity that Pedro Flores, the original US manufacturer of the ‘bandalore’ hadn’t. Duncan offered the immigrant from the Philippines $25,000 for the rights and promptly trademarked the name ‘Yo-Yo’.

He immediately revolutionised the toy’s simple technology by introducing the ‘slip string’ and changing the basic shape into a ‘butterfly’. Both of which meant players could do more than spin it up and down. They could do tricks too (ooh!).

Duncan then approached newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and asked for free advertising in his daily papers. In exchange, Duncan held YOYO trick competitions and the entrants were required to bring a quantity of new subscriptions for the newspaper as their entry fee.

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These early media blitzes were so successful that, in Philadelphia alone, three million units sold during one month-long campaign in 1931. After that, YOYO sales went up and down as often as the toy. (Another story tells how, after a market dip in the 1930s, the Lego company was stuck with a huge inventory, they salvaged the unsold toys by sawing each yoyo in half, using them as wheels on toy trucks and cars.)

Sales peaked in 1962, when Duncan sold 45 million units and saturated the market. Advertising and production costs far outstripped even the sudden increase in sales revenue and profits plummeted. This wasn’t the end of Duncan though. Since 1936 he’d experimented with parking meters as a sideline. Over the years, the parking meter division grew to become Duncan’s main moneymaker, making it easier to cut his YOYO losses and move on.

So, there you go. The YOYO’s global commercial success and iconic status revolves around Donald F. Duncan, Sr’s incredible marketing genius. He was also the brains behind the premium incentive; a marketing tactic wherein the consumer is encouraged to collect proof of purchases and redeem them for rewards like small toys or discounts. (A technique used by Kellogg’s to sell tens of billions of boxes of cereal over the decades!) So, Donald, we salute you for your SHARP thinking.

Did you know-know..?

  • “Yo-yo” means “come-come”, “come back” or “return” in Tagalog; the native language of the Philippines.
    • Cleopatra was playing with one just before she got bitten by an asp. Possibly.
  • Since the 1930s, over half a billion YOYOs have been made and sold.
    • Duncan’s massive factory produced 3,600 of the toys every hour making the factory’s hometown of Luck, Wisconsin the YOYO Capital of the World.
  • The world’s most valuable YOYO was a present for President Richard Nixon. Nixon tried (and failed) a few tricks, so he autographed it and gave it back. When the owner died, the YOYO was sold at auction for $16,000.
  • The first toy to grace outer space was, you guessed it, a YOYO.
  • 6 June is national YOYO day – Donald F. Duncan, Sr’s birthday.

Richard Sharp - The SHARP agency

Richard

Creative Partner