If there's a commonality between sumo wrestling suits, magnets, Wacky Wallwalkers, Beanie Babies and the like, it's the emotional link between the product and the customer. Gian Luigi Longinotti-Buitoni, president and CEO of Ferrar's North America Inc., writes of this link in his new book, Selling Dreams (Simon & Schuster). "You have to try to interpret the spirit of the nation," says Longinotti-Buitoni. "For instance, when the Walkman [took off], it fit in with the dreams of that time, giving everybody the freedom to listen to music and walk around." Entrepreneurs who want to sell something unusual, says Longinotti-Buitoni, have to think just like an artist. "You don't come up with good ideas through market analysis," he says. "It requires a certain curiosity, a creative way of thinking."
After all, the pet rock didn't sell because of a public need. Everybody just wanted in on Dahl's joke. And if your customers don't have that emotional connection, you're going to be the one who feels like a sucker, especially if you're stuck with a warehouse full of 50,000 toilet plungers that double as toothbrushes. Even the pet rock guru himself admits, "For a few years, I was guilty of believing my own publicity and thinking I was invincible." Indeed, Dahl now has a successful advertising agency, but he's never repeated the success of the pet rock, which he describes as "just a happy accident."
Yet almost 25 years later, the phone still rings off the hook with inventors calling Dahl, seeking his expertise, his connections and financial help. "I'm usually polite enough to say 'No,'" sighs Dahl. And reporters still routinely phone him, too. "I really get tired of these calls," says a weary-sounding Dahl. Ah, if only we all had such problems.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.