Pop! Goes The Bubble: Into The Stratosphere Of $5,000 Toys

Don Gordon

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If you had found yourself out behind the Javits Center, at the western edge of Manhattan, along the forlorn banks of the Hudson River—as I did on a recent Thursday morning—you might have found yourself wondering, “What in hell am I doing here?”

No such doubts appeared to trouble the person behind us in line, a full-grown man in a Pikachu costume. In fact, Pikachu and his girlfriend Vapereon were in surprisingly good spirits, especially considering the 2-hour wait to pick up will-call tickets to the 11th annual New York Comic Con. For my part, I complained bitterly to my son until he pointed out that the excursion was my idea.

Finally gaining entrance to the Javits with our coveted badges was momentarily satisfying, even if I was immediately overcome with the distinct strain of claustrophobia that, I quickly discovered, overcomes me when trapped among 50,000+ comic book enthusiasts. But with the help of my son and pranayamic breathing, I pushed forward into the exhibit hall.

Turns out the wait was worth it. We met a number of really amazing artists and writers, who were more than happy to talk with us and share their work and do sketches and sign comic books. One book we picked up is all about a legion of super-intelligent apes who are trying to save the world. Another features a superhero with the power to cure hangovers. Worthy pursuits indeed.

But we deduced, after a while, that many of the attendees were not there to peruse comic books. At certain times hundreds of people would dash madly into enormous lines. A gigantic man in a Thor costume patiently explained to us, the way a kindergarten teacher might tell a toddler that the sky is blue, that the big draw were the exclusive figures being released by savvy vendors. The most coveted among these are the Pop! vinyl toys produced by a company called Funko.

The Funko line, which I had seen before in stores as varied as Gamestop, Target, and Barnes & Noble, are licensed versions of popular characters like Deadpool, Harry Potter, Scarlet Witch, Daryl from Walking Dead, and so on. All the figures share a characteristic Funko look: a tiny body topped by an oversized, squarish head that is punctuated by a tiny triangular nose and large black circular eyes with a distinct puppyish quality. The figures typically retail for about 10 bucks.

Here’s the thing, though. There are quite a number of hard-core Pop! collectors out there, and many of the exclusive figures immediately shoot up in value. A glow-in-the-dark Disney Oogie Boogie will only set you back $416.50, but the Vegeta figure from the anime series Dragon Ball has a going price of $830. Meanwhile, a Freddy Choco glow-in-the-dark exclusive recently sold on eBay for $7,850 plus $65 shipping.  (I know what you’re thinking: “Didn’t I just toss a bunch of those figures into the garbage?”)

Would I spend $1,275 on an exclusive Freddy Funko winged monkey (metallic edition)? I don’t suppose I would, but then again I probably wouldn’t have spent a year’s salary on a flower bulb like they did during the tulip mania that overtook the Dutch in the 1630s. In fact, a highly coveted Viceroy tulip bulb once fetched 4 oxen, 8 fat swine, a dozen sheep, 2 hogsheads of wine, a suit of clothes and 1,000 pounds of cheese.

What I find most fascinating about the Funko phenomenon is the consistency with which the company has been able to ride the crest of consumer excitement around their product. Through a combination of timely licensing, savvy merchandising (including retiring coveted designs into the “vault”), and engaging marketing, they have sustained high interest in a product line that did not initially seem highly differentiated. Surely there are some strong lessons here for consumer products companies of all sizes.

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About Don Gordon

Don Gordon leads global Consumer Products industry marketing for SAP. Previously he led global Retail industry marketing for IBM. He lives in Philadelphia, considered by many to be the finest city on earth.