Behind the bestsellers

Can trend marketer Carlton Calvin influence culture enough to turn a fad into an institution?

Carlton calvin knows from fads. in the mid 1990s, he hit on the idea of putting preserved scorpions inside Slammers -- small acrylic game pieces that players flick at their opponents' cardboard Pogs. Calvin went on to sell close to 400,000 of the gruesome creations within six months -- at which point the popular kids' game died the typical death of a once-hot toy. He took the leftover scorpions and recycled them into yo-yos -- a fad that lasted a little longer. After that he came out with Fingerboards (miniskateboards that you steer with your fingers), which also had their moment of fame.

But this time Calvin is sure he's found a keeper. As president of Razor USA LLC, he has been riding the wave of one of the hottest sensations in years: scooters. By the end of last year -- the first in which this updated version of a decades-old kids' favorite started selling big in this country -- more than 4 million scooters had been sold under the Razor brand alone.

Calvin takes surprisingly little credit for the scooter phenomenon "other than just seeing the potential," he says. The Los Angeles­based entrepreneur has eschewed all forms of traditional print or television advertising, and has instead allowed the craze to take hold almost on its own. "This is what I've seen in other fads," he says. "It's word of mouth, like a great movie."

What he did do, he says, was make sure "there was a home for the Razor scooter in the United States," he says. His company, formed last June to become the sole U.S. distributor for the Taiwanese company that makes the brand, became the headquarters of the scooter craze. "I was particularly set up for the explosion because I was already in the trendy-toy business," says Calvin. With connections to all the major retailers, "I was able to get it everywhere quickly. That helped establish us as being synonymous with scooters." He also became the person whom reporters would call when they were writing stories about the craze.

There's no question that Calvin's company has reaped the rewards of a fad. But by definition, all fads fade, and even Calvin acknowledges that scooter mania has probably already peaked. How can he protect the product from the all too familiar crash-and-burn pattern of some of his previous fads? How can any marketer turn a once-sizzling-hot must-have into a lasting business?

Calvin has decided to reposition the scooter as a sporting good and emphasize its sports use in its marketing. "We've already seen the greatest rush of the fad of scootering," he says. "Now we move into the sport of scootering." He compares scooters in that context with BMX, the popular dirt bikes. "Very few kids actually race them on dirt roads, but because that's the sport, it becomes cool for all the kids" to have that style of bike, he says.

Calvin already has a Team Razor -- eight Los Angeles teens and young adults who travel the world doing tricks on their scooters in venues such as NBA halftime shows, country fairs, and store openings. He wants to organize competitions and have a league, and eventually get included in the X-treme Sports competitions that are often featured on television. When kids see the scooter high jinks, "it gives them something to practice -- idols to emulate," says Calvin. And that should help sell more scooters -- or so he hopes.

To promote the sport and at the same time expand his business, Calvin has begun marketing new products, including the RZ Ultralight for sports fans and the RZ Cruiser for adults. The latter features a retro look and a wider platform. For adults he is emphasizing the scooter as a form of transportation, and for that, he says, customers will want a better-quality product that will really last. He has also begun selling bicycles under the Razor name.

As the scooter fad cools, Calvin wants to make sure to keep his products hot. Razor scooters used to be available in every kind of retailing outlet, from drugstores to bath stores. Now he is selling them only to sporting-goods stores, major toy stores, and specialty shops like the Sharper Image. He doesn't want to be everywhere anymore, he explains. "We want to be in places where you think you'd find a bicycle," he says. And bicycles, as we all know, have more staying power than scorpion Slammers.

Scooter Strategy May Hit a Few Potholes

We wanted to know what the experts thought of Carlton Calvin's strategy for turning the scooter fad into a mainstream sport and thus extending the life of his product. So senior writer Rifka Rosenwein turned to the people who know: youth marketers and Calvin's target customers -- nine-year-old boys. Their reaction to Calvin's plans? Decidedly mixed.

Darby O'Brien is president of Darby O'Brien Advertising Inc., in South Hadley, Mass. The company had billings last year of more than $1 million. The 21-year-old business publishes the trend-spotting quarterly The Gut, which is mailed to thousands of subscribers around the country. The Gut has correctly predicted the comeback of the summer camp, the rise of the retro-preppie look, the return of the suit, and the popularity of Latin music, among other trends.

"The trouble with the Razor is that popularity killed the vibe," says O'Brien. "They built a mainstream brand, and they bypassed the skate shops to do it, which created a strong negative among the crowd they're now looking to attract. According to our spotters, serious skaters now chase the kids riding scooters out of the skate parks. Limiting availability won't help. You can't work it backward. You have to start out with limited availability if you want to create a hip factor. Plus, these kids are already looking for the next big thing; you're not going to get them to turn back."

Tim Coffey is CEO of WonderGroup, a youth-marketing firm in Cincinnati. WonderGroup's clients include General Mills and Quaker Oats. Among the firm's claims to fame: helping Heinz create its EZ Squirt green ketchup. Coffey, along with partners Dave Siegel and Greg Livingston, coauthored The Great Tween Buying Machine: Marketing to Today's Tweens, to be released this month by Paramount Market Publishing.

"Mr. Calvin's plans to position the Razor and scooters as a sporting good is right on the money, especially his idea to create 'stars' that his 'tween' and teen-boy market can emulate," says Coffey. "Whether he can succeed in extending the Razor brand to other products like bicycles will depend on whether he can leverage his 'stars' to make the brand cool to this audience. But his plan to launch adult bicycles under the Razor brand will send it straight to the scrap heap of other one-hit wonders, as his core tween and teen consumer will take that as a sure sign that the brand has sold out and is not for them."

Wendy Watson is senior vice-president and youth-marketing-practice leader at Porter Novelli, a large public-relations firm in Los Angeles. Porter Novelli's clients include Bandai America, maker of Power Rangers and Digimon; and the Jim Henson Co., originator of the Muppets.

"With 'extreme' quickly becoming 'mainstream,' Calvin's Team Razor offers a viable strategy for growing the business," says Watson. "Marketing this new brand of 'extreme' to an audience hungry for the next cool thing is likely to be a hit. Young children emulate older tweens and teens, so it won't be too long before young kids start to try to perform these potentially dangerous tricks. My counsel would be to not overlook the safety concerns of product-buying parents by establishing a branded, grassroots scooter-safety program in order to cultivate scooter athletes in a responsible way."

Steven Perkal is a nine-year-old Teaneck, N.J., resident who received a Razor scooter as a gift from his grandfather.

"I was asking for it. I wanted a Razor because everyone else had one," he says. Steven tries to do tricks on his own or with his friends. "If there were somebody really good at it, like Tony Hawk, I'd watch it on TV," he says. "It's a little like a sport; you could play games with it." To get around the neighborhood, however, Steven still prefers his bike "because you don't have to work as hard." This year he doesn't think that many of his friends are going to ask for regular scooters anymore. Some may want the new electric scooters that he's heard about. What does he think his mom would say to that? "She would say, 'Ask your father," he says.

Benjamin Horowitz is also a nine-year-old Teaneck, N.J., resident. Benjamin worked all last summer -- selling lemonade, doing chores around the house, and helping his father file in his office -- to save enough money to buy a Razor scooter. Why?

"Because everyone had it, and it looked like fun," he says. He doesn't have much interest in doing tricks or watching other people do tricks on TV. "It's not like my favorite sport," he explains. (That honor goes to hockey.) He's also not interested in a motorized version. "This one is good enough for me," he says. Asked why he wanted only a Razor, he replies, perhaps echoing a parent's view, "Even if it costs a lot of money, it's the safest."

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