Air Swimmers was one of the hottest toys in the U.S. last year, and yet the company behind it didn’t spend a dime on advertising. Instead, Mark Forti, founder and CEO of the William Mark Corporation, filmed a gag reel about the surprising ways that people could actually use Air Swimmers–those remote controlled inflatable sharks or Nemo-fish–and uploaded it to YouTube. In one shot, the nimble mini-floater exits an elevator in a crowded office building trailed by an operator in full scuba gear. In another, the shark looms over a cat hunting a smaller fish in a fishbowl, scaring the bejesus out of it. Forti sold millions of the $40-dollar toys as a result of his YouTube antics, but he’s more interested in his view count: It’s at nearly 9 million and counting. “I’m a millionaire in the attention economy,” he says.
Forti’s YouTube success didn’t just change his marketing tactics, it flipped the way he creates products in the first place. His brainstorming process is now literally reversed. “The first question we ask is whether this will make a great couple minute piece of entertainment,” he says. “We’ll scrap an idea if it doesn’t because that leveraging effect is so powerful and it’s just sheer profit.” This August, the company will release an Angry Birds-themed Air Swimmers. No doubt fans are eagerly awaiting the YouTube sequel.
The William Mark Corporation is a two man operation; there’s Forti, and Blake English, a 25-year old engineer from Stanford. They both create their own toys and have an equally pioneering history of selling. Before YouTube, the company used VHS tapes to make in-store toy demonstration videos, primarily because their toys were so quirky that they were afraid people wouldn’t understand how they worked. Forti, whose father was an aerospace expert at General Dynamics, started the company solo in 1992 as a junior at Baylor University. “I was supposed to be working on a marketing project and I was basically procrastinating,” he says. Thanks to dad, he liked to tinker with airplane designs. One day he bent a tiny airfoil – basically, a model of a plane wing– into a circle to see if it could still fly. The result, dubbed the X-zylo, was an oval-shaped cylinder that flew farther than a Frisbee, topping out at more than 200 yards a throw.
Problem is, the thing looked unimpressive sitting still. Forti realized that the key to selling an activity-based product was to demonstrate it properly. That meant making those highlight videos for store displays. He did that, and then proved it worked by hawking more product on the QVC home shopping network. On air, he tried out lots of sales tactics including discount price pushing and limited-time-only offers. For his product, though, the call volume really spiked when the station showed back-up footage of people just chucking it. “We could sell 8,000 in eight minutes,” he says. He spent the next decade coming up with other aeronautical-themed toys including a self-launching, mini hang glider, air-pressure-controlled rocket, and X-zylo launcher that acts a lot like a big slingshot. He also honed his movie thrill shots. “We became extremely good at inventing jaw-dropping videos for toys. We were naturally primed for the age of YouTube.”
Except YouTube is a moving target. “What worked a year ago, does not work today,” Forti says. Remember Lady GaGa spoofs and flash mobs? That’s so 2011. The toy market is ephemeral, too. Each year, the goal is to create a hit that peaks a lot like a BuzzFeed meme— and usually right around Christmas. To do that, Forti set has some basic ground rules. His videos are pretty low-fi. They look decent, just not corporate slick. They are also quick; two minutes or less being the perfect office time-waster. Finally, to avoid looking like an infomercial, he leaves out retail info altogether. Instead, he brands each video with the name of the toy or a simple URL. “It’s all one click away,” he says, noting that if people want to know more they will Google it.
Initially, the goal is just to get word out that a cool new thing exists. To do that, Forti sends each new video to a few hundred friends and merchandisers and hopes that it’s good enough to pass or post. If that works, others trying to capitalize on the trend will do the hard work for him. When Air Swimmers started getting shared, it popped up on culture blogs like Vsauce and eventually YouTube’s own top-watched lists. That led to toy cameos on Letterman, Ellen, Dancing with the Stars, and even a Jeopardy question. As more stores picked up the product, more people recognized it, too. “Nothing succeeds like success,” Forti says.
Success does still have some costs, however. Like any good director, Forti lives and dies by his shot lists. For the Air Swimmers video, that included an aquarium scene to show the toys floating past their real brethren, which meant flying from his headquarters in Claremont, California to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. They also went to LA, where he and his crew were kicked out of the Bonaventure Hotel for unauthorized fish flights. Another risk that paid off big: sneaking into the Claremont McKenna College dorms to get footage of their shark waking up a sleeping co-ed.
Forti’s mini-movie plots always match the intention of his toys. For an early YouTube hit about My Mystery UFO, a sleight-of-hand toy that hovers, well, mysteriously around the user, he dispensed with product explanations to show stunts and people marveling at each new trick. The message: Who cares how it works? If you get this, you’ll impress. Another video about Flitter Fairies, a similar toy with a wand and a wing-flapping fairy, stressed improving make-believe play among girls. It had a lower overall view count but resonated strongly enough with those watchers to drive major sales. He thinks Air Swimmers really took off because it showed the people controlling the toys having so much fun, too. Consumers subconsciously knew what they would get out of it. “The emphasis shouldn’t be on the product,” he says. “It should be on the viewer and what is on their mind.”
[Photo illustration by: Joel Arbaje]