It may be the biggest American on-road phenomenon since the creation of the interstate highway system. Spreading as fast as kudzu along U.S. roadways, stick figure decals depicting family members stuck to the rear windows of SUVs and minivans have become even more common than “Baby on Board” placards.
“They’re all over the place. It’s incredibly simple. You could never teach [how to start a business like] this in a ‘How to Be an Entrepreneur’ kind of class,” says Robert Thompson, Ph.D., a nationally known observer of social trends and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “It’s a celebration of everybody who rides in that car.”
The entrepreneur who turned the stickers into a national trend couldn’t be happier. “It kind of went west, then East Coast, then Midwest,” says Aaron Ellsworth, the creator of FamilyStickers.com.
Ellsworth took a novel concept he saw at a country fair to his bosses at Woodland Manufacturing in Meridian, Idaho, and sold them on his vision of offering customized family stickers to the public. The company, just five years old at the time, was already manufacturing business signs, craft items, and wedding products, and it seized on the opportunity to extend its business model. So in 2006, FamilyStickers.com was born.
“Our background is being a manufacturer and an Internet retailer … and so this fit right into it,” explains Ellsworth, Woodland’s vice president of marketing and sales.
Woodland’s sticker unit built its business methodically, creating stockpiles of artwork and placing targeted advertising online and in family-focused publications as the recession began eroding economic stability. As demand for the stickers grew, the company upgraded its manufacturing equipment and added staff.
The engine behind the success of FamilyStickers.com may not be soccer moms as much as their kids, according to Thompson. “The car is completely the domain of the power structure of the family,” he reflects. All members of the family get displayed on the rear window and for kids, “That’s you, your position in the family,” he says. “Everybody in the family gets represented.”
Finding its Niche
Woodland had grabbed the market by the “long tail,” a term popularized by business journalist and entrepreneur Chris Anderson in his book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. Anderson’s premise is that small businesses can differentiate themselves by playing to a market niche and eventually own it by catering to the interests of sub-groups if the distribution channel is wide enough.
Customers can now design stickers in color, selecting skin tone, hair color, and other preferences before placing orders online. Drilling down on family attributes, Woodland found that stick figures doing things like playing the guitar, raising bees, or practicing yoga accounted for a near-majority of its sales. Interestingly, FamilyStickers.com’s single biggest selling sticker domestically is not people but dogs.
“It’s got an extra bonus in that it’s so easy to be personalized,” Thompson says of the company’s approach.
“Big Boxes” Come Calling
Woodland jumped into the wholesale market in 2010 after brands like Wal-Mart and Bed Bath & Beyond approached it. In addition to representations of family members, Woodland now sells hundreds of other sticker designs, such as American flags, to about 30,000 stores.
Both the retail and wholesale sides of the sticker business are “very strong for us,” Ellsworth says, without disclosing sales data. “We try to keep in a few different niches that we can do and do well,” Ellsworth says. “Whatever fits in your core competency is going to allow you to best leverage your resources.”
On the window of his own car, Ellsworth is seen as “a bald guy wearing a cowboy hat since we have a little farm in the country.” The rest of the mobile stick-figure clan includes a mom who cooks, five kids engaged in their favorite activities, and a dog, cat, chicken, and cow.