Two Lessons on Innovation from Play-Doh

C  leo McVicker made a promise he didn’t know how to keep.

The worst year of the Great Depression wasn’t being very kind to Kutol, the small soap manufacturing company. They had survived an inventory sell off a few years prior and were still making a profit, but barely. They needed something big. And here was Kroger, one of the biggest grocers in the country, asking him if he had a wallpaper cleaning product. People were heating their homes with coal burning fireplaces now, and while it was cheaper than wood, it also made for a nasty house, with soot in the air and on the walls, where delicate paper decoration wasn’t built to withstand a good scrubbing. What sort of product would remove the soot without damaging the wallpaper?

Kroger executives asked him if he had such a cleaner and he said yes. The executives ordered 15,000 cases, with a $5,000 penalty if they didn’t deliver on time. McVicker signed on, even though the penalty, if applied, would wipe out the company. The only problem with the deal was that McVicker didn’t know how to make wallpaper cleaner.

Having named his future based on chutzpah alone, now he had to deliver. Cleo contacted his brother, Noah. Noah experimented with a variety of concoctions and eventually produced a soft, putty-like substance of flour, water, mineral oil, salt and boric acid. A dirt-desperate housewife could roll the putty on the walls and pull up the black layer of soot. Noah had figured it out. The cleaner was an instant hit, and propelled Kutol through the Great Depression, becoming their signature product.

After World War II, though, business began a slow fade. Coal heat was being replaced by gas, wall paper had turned into wall vinyl, and demand for putty cleaner was drying up. Kutol continued to make a small profit on it, but as with all creative inspirations, what was once a booming product had become a long tail of slowly diminishing returns. Their cleaner was reaching the end of its cycle.

Cleo died in a plan crash in 1949, and his nephew Joe took over his job. A few years later, during Christmas season 1954, Joe’s sister in law Kay Zufall, a preschool teacher, was looking for something crafty and seasonal for her students. A magazine article suggested making ornaments with Kutol’s wallpaper cleaner. The next day, she brought a can to school. The students loved it and instantly began making shapes and designs with the putty. Kay called her brother-in-law Joe and explained what happened. She pitched an entirely new use for their signature product, one that Kutol had never occurred to explore.

McVicker and team took to the idea, removed the detergent qualities, gave it a playful aroma and a bold set of color options, and named their new spinoff product, “Rainbow Modeling Compound.” When she heard of their work, Zufall called Joe again, and told him they had chosen a terrible name. She suggested an alternative: “Play-Doh.”

Again, Kutol had hit the jackpot. Within a few years, Play-Doh was earning millions. General Mills purchased Play-Doh, and fifty years later, it continues to be a staple of children’s playtime.

The story of Play-Doh tells us a couple of things about creativity:


1. Pressure can be a great creativity maker.

People achieve great things when they put themselves in a difficult position that forces them to deliver.  Cleo McVicker did just that. The pressure to perform was the basis for his company’s most productive work. He seized his Kroger opportunity and said he could do it, even though he had no idea how. Innovation emerged from desperation.

Business executives agree on the value of innovation. A study shows that over 90% of executives value company innovation. That’s a no-brainer. Yet under half are satisfied with their company’s current attempts at innovation. They understand creativity as important but struggle with how to capture it.

“Creativity,” for many business people, perhaps suggests an environment where employees lounge in beanbags and throw darts at a wall, wasting company resources with little more than play. Maybe such attempts at innovation produce less than the sort of impossible goal that McVicker set for himself. The most creative moments may not emerge as a result of an open-ended exploration of ideas but a closed-option pressure cooker of deadlines and challenges. As the Wall Street Journal writes,

People are at their most creative when they focus on the internal aspects of a situation or problem—and when they constrain their options rather than broaden them. By defining and then closing the boundaries of a particular creative challenge, most of us can be more consistently creative—and certainly more productive than we are when playing word-association games in front of flip charts or talking about grand abstractions at a company retreat.

Rather than hinder the creative process, deadlines may actually help.


2. The most creative work is a variation on a known theme.

Many assume that brilliant ideas fall down as candy from the sky, but the reality is that most true innovation does not appear from nowhere, but rather lay hidden in plain sight, a variation on what we already know and do, considered from a fresh and different angle. Before it was ever officially a product, Play-Doh had existed for a long time as a divergent use of a product marketed for something else entirely.

It is no coincidence that Kutol’s business salvation came from a group of young children, either. The kids, and their teacher, were not constrained by the can’s label. They could care less that Kutol’s wallpaper cleaner was supposed to be rolled on the wall to remove dirt. They saw it as a crafty pile of fun.

What new, creative solution lies in plain sight before you, waiting to be discovered?


About the Author

Len Wilson

Facebook Twitter Google+

Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).