Wednesday, July 22, 2009

how WD-40 got its name


You probably never wondered where the name WD-40 came from, as it's one of those ubiquitous products, found in 80 percent of American homes, invisible until you need it for one of its 2000 uses.

As you might guess, it wasn't named by a copywriter. In 1953, scientists working for the Rocket Chemical Company (shades of George Jetson) were looking for a formula to prevent corrosion in missiles sent into space. They'd tried 39 formulas for water displacement until hitting paydirt on the 40th try. Apparently, having used up all their powers of invention on R&D, they named it using a code from their lab notes.

The stuff worked so well, employees began sneaking it home and soon they were selling 45 cases a day out of their car trunks to hardware and sporting goods stores. In 1969, a marketer took over the company and turned the brand into a household name. John S. Barry convinced the scientist management team to allow for an ad budget and free sampling: he sent 10,000 cans every month to soldiers in Viet Nam, grooming an army of loyal lifetime users. Annual sales increased from $2 million in 1970 to $91 million in 1990. 

Mr. Barry passed away recently, taking the formula for WD-40 to his grave. He insisted that the company never patent the product in order to avoid having to disclose the ingredients publicly. But rumors that it's fish oil are apparently unfounded

13 comments:

Señorita Andalucíana said...

So does this mean I should rush out and buy as many as possible? I hope that at least one heir has the formula!

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

He took recipe to his grave...but left a few copies in the company files. So no need to stock up. As long as Walmarts are stocked, there'll be WD-40 ;)

J9 said...

And I think the WD in the research notes stands for Water Displacement.

w_page said...

I love your blogs! Always so informative and interesting. I feel smarter already.

lisa101 said...

I like your blog its a good read,interesting to say the least,Hey,from New Orleans

Makolyte said...

Only one guy knew the formula? That's hard to imagine but i've heard of stuff like that happening.

For example, it's either KFC or Coke who manufactures half of the recipe in one plant, and half in the other, and only lets 2 people in the entire company know it. These 2 people are not allowed to fly on the same plane.

josh said...

Wow, I guess I've never really realized how horrible of a name that is for a product. It would probably be called something like "Miracle Water" these days and have some guy on TV screaming about it. "Order now! You can't live without it!"

Lauren and Bill said...

Great blog. Spent the past 30 minutes reading your past posts. I have very much enjoyed your commentary and thoughts. Keep up the great work.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@J9 Right you are. Sounds like a code name for an unlaunched product, doesn't it? Which probably helped sales.

@w_page Thanks for the read and kind words :)

@lisa101 Hello, New Orleans :)

@Makolyte Interesting. Hadn't heard that. Love the plane bit. Sounds like screenplay material :)

@Josh No doubt you're right. And product probably wouldn't do nearly as well as it did with "ugly" name that made people think they were getting a secret formula.

@Lauren and BIll Thanks for your time and generous words :)

Tatiana Lensky said...

WD-40. Was introduced to it working as camera assistent. Lovely those days were.....

California Girl said...

WD-40 is a local legend in San Diego where I lived and worked for many years. I heard they ran out of ideas for a name and it was based on the 40th "something" so I guess that is the case.

I did not know it was a secret formula going to the grave. I guess they'll have to use some WD-40 to grease the hinges on his coffin when they dig it up to look for clues.

Dr.Nite said...

Interesting artical...it would be a great trivia question ...thanks...

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@Tatiana Is there any job WD-40 *isn't* good for?

@California Girl Yes, he took formula to his grave...but thankfully also left a few copies in the company files :)

@Dr.Nite And good for greasing the wheels of small talk, too ;)