IF it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then there’s a good chance it’s the next craze in collectible toys. At least Craig Wolfe believes that’s the case, and he has good reason to. His company’s line of Celebriducks–rubber ducks that are molded and painted to resemble famous athletes and celebrities–has taken flight in the lucrative world of sports collectibles, and the line is now poised to break through to mainstream retail.
As president of the Marin County, California-based toyco that shares the name of its successful fowl line, Wolfe and a colleague hatched the idea for the toys five years ago and began selling them through small gift shops and on-line at www.celebriducks.com. But it’s only recently that the toy has started to find its wings, and Wolfe has the NBA to thank for that.
As part of a fan promotion at one of their January 2002 games, the Philadelphia 76ers gave away 5,000 ducks decked out to look like the team’s star player Alan Iverson. Sporting the diminutive guard’s trademark hairstyle and tattoos, the ducks were an instant hit with fans. ‘Once people saw the detail, they were really impressed because no one had put tattoos or cornrows on a duck before,’ says Wolfe, who had already collected an eclectic roster of celebrity ducks, including SKUs based on soul singer James Brown and Betty Boop.
Soon afterwards, national print and TV media outlets ran stories on Celebriducks, and it wasn’t long before other NBA teams and sports leagues were calling to talk deals.
Today, Wolfe’s company has licensing agreements with the leagues and players’ associations at MLB, the NHL and NASCAR. Wolfe also recently expanded the NBA deal to allow him to sell Celebriducks of league players at retail.
To be sure, the marriage with professional sports teams is proving to be a fruitful one for Wolfe, who, before venturing into toy collectibles, sold commercial artwork of corporate logos. Last year, Celebriducks sold 15,000 units of the rubber fowl. This year, Wolfe expects 400,000 of the toys to waddle their way to consumers, with the majority of those sales coming from deals the company has with sports teams and leagues.
But Wolfe is clearly looking beyond sports to the entertainment world to help grow the line. The company recently signed deals with Signature Networks to do US$12 Celebriducks based on the cast of MTV’s dysfunctional family docucomedy The Osbournes; with Twentieth Century Fox for Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter, the lead transvestite from The Rocky Horror Picture Show; and with The Don Buchwald Agency for ’80s holdover Mr. T. The Mr. T Ducks will hit mid-tier department stores like JCPenney and Carson’s and independent U.S. gift stores first this July, followed by the Frank ‘N’ Furter and Osbourne Ducks in the fall.
Wolfe says he’d also like to do Ducks modeled on kid-targeted characters, and he attended last month’s Licensing Show with the goal of identifying opportunities in this category. Additionally, the company is in preliminary discussions with Carl’s Jr. and McDonald’s to do Celebriducks premiums.
With Celebriducks quacking up a major following, the company must now continue building the toy’s momentum without flaming out prematurely. To that end, Wolfe has vowed to keep a tight rein on inventory and distribution. Eventually, he will also add innovations to the line, including sound chips featuring snippets of dialog associated with the characters/stars that the Ducks are based on. Wolfe also plans to regularly retire a number of the flock to the pond.
The jury’s still out as to whether or not these tactics can extend the toy’s shelf-life past that of Bobbleheads and Beanie Babies, but the Ducks have a shot at equaling their collectible predecessors’ ubiquity at retail, says Robert Tuchman, CEO of T.S.E. Entertainment, a New York-based firm that helps corporations find marketing opportunities within the sporting world. ‘[Celebriducks] are the hot thing that kids want right now,’ says Tuchman, who adds that the demand among sports fans for Beanies and, to a lesser degree, Bobbleheads, has begun to cool.
Besides, Wolfe points out, the rubber duck has cultural equity working in its favor. ‘If you look at a lot of collectibles–like Pet Rocks, for example–they have no context before or after they arrive on the scene. They’re here, and then they’re gone. Rubber ducks, on the other hand, are a part of American history.’