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11Innovation Masters – 3M Post-it Notes (9 pp)

3M Post-it Notes

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Innovation Masters: History’s Best Examples of Business Transformation. Ed. Miranda H. Ferrara and Michele P. LaMeau. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2012. p1-4.

Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning|CX4019700008


Page 13M Post-it Notes

  • The Three Main Characters in the Post-it Story
  • The Glue that Led to the Sticky Note
  • The Post-it Note
  • The Development of Sticky Notes
  • Early Marketing Efforts
  • Post-it Success at Last
  • Post-it Notes Everywhere
  • Evaluating the Post-it Note
  • Bibliography

Post-it Notes are the ubiquitous re-adherent pieces of paper found in most office settings. Sticky notes, as they are sometimes known, have a strip of repositionable adhesive in a thin strip on the back. This allows the small pieces of paper to be attached, detached, and reattached to computer screens, papers, and many other surfaces. Post-it Notes are used in a variety of ways, often to add notes and reminders to work surfaces and completed projects.

Originally, Post-it Notes were manufactured by 3M Company (originally known as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company) as three-inch yellow squares. The patent for the notes expired in the 1990s, and in the early 2010s many manufacturers have their own lines of sticky notes, although the Post-it brand of notes is still manufactured by 3M and continues to be one of the most recognized brands of sticky notes. The trademark for the Post-it brand and the trademark for the distinctive yellow color of the original sticky notes is still registered and owned by 3M.The Three Main Characters in the Post-it Story

Post-it Notes were made possible by the cooperation of two men working in a specific corporate culture. The two men most responsible for the development of the Post-it Note were Spencer Silver and Arthur Fry. Silver studied chemistry at Arizona State University and organic chemistry at the University of Colorado, graduating with a doctorate in 1966. Immediately after graduation, Silver joined a team of five people at 3M who were researching pressure-sensitive adhesives. By 2010 he was named on over 20 U.S. patents, although he was best known for developing the adhesive that allowed for the invention of Post-it Notes.

Fry was an inventor as a child growing up in the U.S. Midwest. As a young boy, he used scrap wood to design toboggans. He went on to study chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota, and while pursuing his degree, he joined 3M’s new product development team. Fry retired from 3M in the 1990s, decades after inventing the Post-it Note using Silver’s adhesive.

3M itself was also a key character in the Post-it Note story. According to Michael Gershman, in his book Getting It Right the Second Time: How American Ingenuity Transformed Forty-Nine MarketingFailures into Some of Our Most Successful Products, the company was founded on a failed concept. The original leaders of the company believed they had discovered a source of corundum, a mineral used in abrasives. When the discovery was found to be anorthosite (an igneous rock type) instead, the company decided to create sandpaper out of the find, eventually becoming successful with this venture. 3M also attempted to make a masking tape for the automobile industry. The company failed at this as well, according to Gershman, but instead developed Scotch tape, the best-selling adhesive in the world and, until Post-it Notes were created, 3M’s biggest product.

According to Gershman, at the time Fry developed the sticky note, 3M had in place a culture that allowed inventors and workers to “bootleg” funds from one project to another to continue research. The company also actively encouraged idea sharing among departments and employees.

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Other structures were in place at 3M to promote innovation and success, and it retained such practices in the 2010s. For example, the company gave the Golden Step award to employees who developed successful products. The company also had what was known as a “dual ladder” system of promotion. Employees were promoted for professional success or for management. Fry, for example, was promoted through this system until he reached the highest status in the technical area of the company: corporate scientist.The Glue that Led to the Sticky Note

The Post-it Note was created almost as a response to a new adhesive. Silver developed a pressure-sensitive and low-track adhesive in 1968 while working for 3M. According to a 2010 Financial Timesinterview with Geoff Nicholson, the retired vice president of technical operations at 3M research and development, Silver’s adhesive was in fact a happy accident. Silver had been tasked with making very strong adhesives for the airline industry. Silver said that as an experiment he added more of the chemical reactant that polymerised (joined together) molecules. The result was, in his words, “quite astonishing. Instead of dissolving, the small particles that were produced dispersed in solvents.” Silver and his team were intrigued by this new reaction and decided to experiment further. His experiments eventually resulted in what Silver called a “high ‘tack’ but low ‘peel’” adhesive that was also reusable.

In other words, while attempting to create a very strong adhesive Silver created one that was merely sticky. Indeed, according to William Lidwell and Gerry Manacsa, in their book Deconstructing Product Design: Exploring the Form, Function, Usability, Sustainability, and Commercial Success of 100 Amazing Products, Silver’s initial discovery would have been considered a failure at the time, since adhesives were measured by their bonding strength.

The new adhesive was made from very sturdy but tiny acrylic spheres. The unique thing about them was that they would stick not only when they were flat up against a surface, the way other adhesives did, but also would stick when they were tangent to a surface. This meant that the adhesive was strong enough to bind papers to a surface but would allow the paper to be removed from the surface without tearing the paper. The adhesive could also be reused repeatedly.

Silver saw the potential of the idea but had trouble devising a profitable product from his invention. Initially, he considered selling the adhesive as a spray-on adhesive or as a surface on boards for posting and removing notices. In fact, one of the earliest uses of the adhesive was at 3M, where a bulletin board was covered with the adhesive so that notices could be posted and then removed easily.The Post-it Note

For years, Silver gave seminars about his invention at 3M and tried to get others interested in the new adhesive by speaking about it at the company. In 1974 his colleague Art Fry attended one of his seminars. Fry told the Financial Times in 2010 that he heard about Silver’s seminars during a golf game and decided to attend. At the time, Fry worked at the 3M tape division laboratory, where his job was to find new products and create businesses using those products.

Fry did not immediately think of a way to use Silver’s adhesive. However, a practical use for the product soon presented itself. As a member of the church choir at St. Paul’s North Presbyterian Church, Fry needed a way to mark pages in his hymn book without having bookmarks fall out. In June 1974 he realized he had a use for Silver’s adhesive.

Fry got a sample of the adhesive from Silver to create a sticky bookmark for his hymn book. After trying it out, Fry noticed that the adhesive left some residue on the book’s pages but otherwise solved his problem. Fry experimented until he developed a way of making the adhesive less sticky on the pages. He then developed some more sticky bookmarks.

Fry also created a report and placed one of his bookmarks on the front of the report with a question for his supervisor. The supervisor wrote a reply on the same sticky note and repositioned it on the front of the report. As Fry said in his Financial Times interview, “It was a eureka, head-flapping moment—I can still feel the excitement. I had my product: a sticky note.”

Fry developed a proposal for his supervisors, who included Bob Malinda, product manager for the commercial tape division at 3M. He also began giving out samples of his new idea to colleagues at 3M. Supervisors at 3M were initially unsure about the effectiveness of the product, but when they saw the enthusiastic response, they gave Fry permission, a laboratory to develop his product, and the machines that would be needed to produce the sticky notes.The Development of Sticky Notes

The original Post-it Notes were in their distinctive canary yellow because of another happy accident. While Fry and his team were experimenting with the adhesive, they needed some scrap paper to experiment with. According to the Financial Times interview with Nicholson, the team went to another 3M lab on the same floor and were given some scrap paper that happened to be yellow. Nicholson called it “another one of those incredible accidents,” much like the invention of the adhesive itself.

According to Gershman, Fry ran into a few problems initially. One was that marketing professionals at 3M were not sure how to market his idea. Second, while Malinda was supportive of his idea, others were not as enthusiastic. As Gershman wrote, at 3M “No one said ‘No’…but then, no one said ‘Yes’ either.” Fry also had another, logistical, problem. For more than seven decades 3M had been selling its most successful adhesive products in the form of rolls. The company therefore had experience with adhesives on cellophane rather than paper. All the machinery was designed to create adhesives on rolls, whereas Fry imagined a pad of sticky notes.

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Fry created the prototypes for what would become Post-it Notes in his basement. After months of work, he succeeded in creating a machine that could create the sticky note pads he envisioned. Malinda and Nicholson, as well as other 3M personnel, visited the house to observe the progress. They were impressed with the machine and wanted it moved to the 3M building, but the machine was so large that the company had to send construction workers to Fry’s house to dismantle a wall, move the machine, and then repair the wall.Early Marketing Efforts

Fry initially called his sticky notes “Press ’n Peel” notes, and his first attempt at marketing was to hand out free samples of the notes to 3M employees. He kept track of who received samples and how long it took each person to request refills. Nicholson also handed out free samples to 3M employees and realized that people were visiting his office very frequently for refills. The success of the notes within the company led 3M to try to take the sticky notes to market.

In 1977 3M launched the sticky notes under the name “Press ’n Peel” in Denver, Colorado; Tampa, Florida; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Richmond, Virginia, as part of a small-scale marketing effort. Before the test, 3M handed out samples of the products in standard sizes and in 8 1/2-by-11 inch format to retailers in the four cities. The company also ran advertisements in local trade magazines. In addition, 3M sent product samples and descriptive brochures to companies in the test cities.

The product did not elicit much interest from consumers, and the limited test launch was considered a failure at 3M. According to Gershman, the marketing test in the four cities was a “cool disaster.” Response was lukewarm in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Denver, Colorado. In Richmond and Tampa, no one was interested in the new product.

Joe Ramey, the new general manager of the 3M division responsible for the product, traveled to Richmond, Virginia with Nicholson to find out why the test had not been a success. Nicholson and Ramey made cold calls in the test cities and even visited businesses in Richmond to find out what had gone wrong. They determined that no one knew how to use the new products. Nicholson and Ramey gave personal demonstrations and found that they placed orders each time they did so. Ramey concluded that the communications package for the marketing test had not been enough. Although the concept seemed simple, and although 3M promoted the notes with the slogan “Press it on, peel it off” to help customers along, it was not enough without samples and demonstrations.Post-it Success at Last

The sticky notes were withdrawn from the test markets, and 3M launched another attempt. New merchandising materials were created and the company decided to try again with a seeding trial. The company sent free samples to CEOs across the country, asking the CEOs for input as to how the sticky notes could be used. According to Paul Marsden, in his essay “Seed to Spread: How Seeding Trials Ignite Epidemics of Demand,” this was the turning point for the new product, as the seeding trial “generated goodwill and advocacy” from the CEOs, who were flattered to be included in the trial.

In 1978 3M also handed out free samples of the notes in Boise, Idaho, purchased eight advertisements in the Boise Statesman, and used promotional pricing, ceiling displays, counter displays, and window displays to promote the sticky notes. The company also hired temporary staff to visit companies in Boise to hand out free samples of the notes and to demonstrate their use. The Boise campaign was a success. Ninety-five percent of those who tried the free Post-it Notes in that city said that they liked the product and would buy it.Post-it Notes Everywhere

In 1980 3M launched the product, under the name Post-it Notes, across the United States. By 1981 Post-it Notes were being sold in Europe and Canada. They were 3M’s most successful product by 1984. According to Anthony Rubino, Jr., in Why Didn’t I Think of That?: 101 Inventions That Changed the World by Hardly Trying, Post-it Notes generated US$15 billion in sales for 3M by the 1990s and by 2010, the company had sold more than a trillion Post-it Notes. In 1995 3M was the recipient of the National Medal of Technology, in part because of the Post-it Note. The notes have been displayed in museums and have been recognized by historians as one of the most important office inventions since the paperclip. By 2009 Post-it Notes were generating US$1 billion in annual sales.

Post-it Notes have become a constant presence in homes, workplaces, and just about any setting where temporary notes, comments, or reminders need to be posted. The notes have also developed some unique uses. Artists routinely use them to develop Post-it Note art works, for example in 2000 designer Ilze Vitolina created 11 dress designs using Post-it Notes.

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According to the 3M website, the Post-it brand had more than 4,000 different products as of 2011. Post-it flags, developed in 1987, are used for tagging places in books. In 1991 3M released pop-up Post-it Notes, which came in an easy-to-use dispenser. In 1994 3M released a Post-it easel pad, with adhesive-backed sheets that could stick to most walls. In 2003 Post-it Super Sticky notes were released, with a stronger adhesive that could stick to surfaces that normal sticky notes would not adhere to. In 2009 the company released a line of Post-it brand removable labels and Post-it Notes made from recycled paper. That same year, 3M launched Post-it Flag Highlighters, with a traditional highlighter tip, and Post-it book flags located near the top of the pen. Oprah Winfrey featured the pens on her talk show, creating an interest that paved the way for 3M to market ballpoints, permanent markers, gel pens, and combination pens and highlighters with the flags.

Post-it Sticky Boards were also invented by 3M. Post-it Sticky Boards are covered with the famous adhesive, so that notes can be attached and moved around on a board surface. Repositionable Post-it craft paper with an adhesive back is also available from the company, as well as Post-it Clear Pockets, which are were plastic pockets with an adhesive back.

Post-it Notes became available in electronic form. Microsoft’s Windows 7 has a sticky note application that allows computer users to post an electronic version of the Post-it Note on their computer desktop. Post-it also has its own version of Digital Notes, which allows users to download the application to apply digital sticky notes to their desktop background. The Digital Notes, which are downloadable from the 3M website, include photo clipping and web-tagging options.Evaluating the Post-it Note

The Post-it Note story shows that a series of early failures does not necessarily preclude long-term success. Post-it Notes failed in some way at almost every step of their existence. Silver developed an adhesive that was the very opposite of the super adhesive he was trying to achieve. He then had trouble finding an application for his invention. When the first sticky notes were developed by 3M, early marketing tests were not successful. Despite these failures, however, Post-it Notes became one of the most popular office products in the world.Bibliography

“Art Fry & Spencer Silver.” Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, School of Engineering, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. .

Block, Ben. “Post-It Notes.” World Watch 22, no. 5 (2009).

Fry, Art, Spencer Silver, and Sarah Duguid. “First Person: ‘We Invented the Post-it Note.’” Financial Times, December 3, 2010. Accessed December 6, 2011. .

Gershman, Michael. Getting It Right the Second Time: How American Ingenuity Transformed Forty-Nine Marketing Failures into Some of Our Most Successful Products. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1990.

Higgins, James M. “Innovate or Evaporate: Seven Secrets of Innovative Corporations.” The Futurist29, no. 5 (1995).

Kirby, Justin, and Paul Marsden, eds. Connected Marketing: The Viral, Buzz and Word of Mouth Revolution. Oxford, England: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006.

Lidwell, William, and Gerry Manacsa. Deconstructing Product Design: Exploring the Form, Function, Usability, Sustainability, and Commercial Success of 100 Amazing Products. Minneapolis, MN: Rockport Publishers, 2009.

Marsden, Paul. “Seed to Spread: How Seeding Trials Ignite Epidemics of Demand.” In Connected Marketing: The Viral, Buzz and Word of Mouth Revolution, edited by Justin Kirby and Paul Marsden. Oxford, England: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006.

Obendorf, Hartmut. Minimalism: Designing Simplicity. London: Springer-Verlag, 2009.

Post-it. “About Post-it Brand.” Maplewood, MN, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. .

Rubino, Anthony, Jr. Why Didn’t I Think of That?: 101 Inventions That Changed the World by Hardly Trying. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.

“Sticking Around—the Post-it Note Is 20.” BBC News, April 6, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011. .

Zambonini, Dan. “Why Are Post-it Notes Yellow?” The Januarist, February 25, 2010. Accessed December 6, 2011. .

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 

“3M Post-it Notes.” Innovation MastersHistory’s Best Examples of Business Transformation, edited by Miranda H. Ferrara and Michele P. LaMeau, Gale, 2012, pp. 1-4. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX4019700008View other articles linked to these index terms:

Page locators that refer to this article are not hyper-linked.

  • Boise Statesman,
    • 1: 3
  • Deconstructing Product Design: Exploring the Form, Function, Usability, Sustainability, and Commercial Success of 100 Amazing Products (Lidwell, Manacsa),
    • 1: 2
  • Financial Times,
    • 1: 2
  • Fry, Arthur,
    • 1: 1-4
  • Gershman, Michael,
    • 1: 1
  • Getting it Right the Second Time: How American Ingenuity Transformed Forty-Nine Marketing Failures into Some of Our Most Successful Products (Gershman),
    • 1: 1
  • Lidwell, William,
    • 1: 2
  • Malinda, Bob,
    • 1: 2-3
  • Manacsa, Gerry,
    • 1: 2
  • Marsden, paul,
    • 1: 3
  • Nicholson, Geoff,
    • 1: 2-3
  • post-it notes,
    • 1: 1-4
  • Ramey, Joe,
    • 1: 3
  • Rubino, Anthony Jr.,
    • 1: 3
  • Scotch tape,
    • 1: 1
    • 1: 5-6
  • Silver, Spencer,
    • 1: 1-4
  • 3M Company
    • post-it notes,
      • 1: 1-4
  • Vitolina, Ilze,
    • 1: 4
  • Why Didn’t I Think of That?: 101 Inventions That Changed the World by Hardly Trying (Rubino),
    • 1: 3
  • Winfrey, Oprah,
    • 1: 4

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