Halley's Comet has come and gone, but Owen W. Ryan Jr. is still flying high. "Can you believe it?" asks Ryan, nearly buried by some 27,000 letters inquiring about his latest product. "This all started as a joke."
Back in May 1983, Ryan, laughing all the while, started General Comet Industries Inc. as a whimsical parody of the marketing frenzy surrounding the 1984 Olympics. But it was a parody with a point. His primary business, Owen Ryan & Associates, founded in 1980 and trademarked as "an imagination agency," helped large corporations identify new product ideas and then bring them to market, but most of the work was confidential. How then, Ryan had often wondered, could he advertise to the corporate world at large? Where most people call in consultants, Ryan, a former advertising copywriter, called in the cosmos.
Originally envisioned as a fictional case study on paper only, in which Ryan & Associates would playfully but instructively market Halley's comet much as the Olympics had been marketed, General Comet quickly turned into something far different. Demonstrating his agency's conceptual agility was only half the message, Ryan decided; actually bringing an idea to market was equally important. So he designed a logo featuring a picture of the comet and the word "official" and offered to sell licenses for its use. In the next year and a half, Ryan's logo ended up on 35 different products, including balloons, coffee mugs, and T-shirts. By April 11, 1986, when the comet headed out toward deep space once again, General Comet had recorded $4.5 million in sales and a small profit after redeeming the original $300,000 investment.
General Comet was dissolved in August of last year, but the comet's influence still holds sway. More than 100 countries had included Ryan's logo on commemorative postage stamps, and Ryan has now founded Philatelic Collector's Inc. to market them at $360 per stamp portfolio. He has already received more than 30,000 inquiries from collectors and this year expects sales of $1 million from the stamps.
But despite his past success, Ryan says his greatest return is just beginning. In November, Ryan explained the significance of his agency's comet marketing in letters to 240 presidents of Fortune 500 companies and has already received 14 favorable replies. "That's what we started out to do," says Ryan. "It's taken a while for things to come full circle -- but nothing like the comet. We won't see that again until 2061."