A solution without a problem: The story of Post-it Notes
For over 35 years, the Post-it® Brand has helped people be more productive, communicate better and express themselves in a number of creative ways.
Yet as universal as these products have become, their beginnings were far from certain. Looking back, the birth of our Post-it® Canary Yellow Notes phenomenon reminded us of a valuable lesson: perspiration can be just as important as inspiration when it comes to bringing an idea to life.
Post-It Notes website
It all started in 1968 when the American chemist, Spencer Silver, who worked in 3M promoted his discovery as a solution without a problem: he was working in his laboratory and mixed several polymers that gave rise to an adhesive compound, that allowed joining two surfaces without paste. The problem is that no one could imagine an application with a potential for the new substance developed.
In 1974, Arthur Fry, another chemist at 3M, came up with the idea of using Spencer discovery to hold the strips of paper he used to mark the pages of the songs. And so, he remembered the sticker created by his colleague. In the same year, both realized they had discovered a totally new concept.
From the concept to the product
Research is the transformation of money into knowledge. Innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money.
Dr Geoff Nicholson, Retired 3M Vice Pres
After prototypes were produced and tested, 3M advanced to the market tests. In the first phase, the Post-it note blocks were distributed internally to ascertain the employees’ receptivity to the new product — The results were encouraging since the employees often requested the notebooks. However, 3M’s marketing department discredited commercial viability, arguing that customers would not join the new product when they could make notes on any draft paper.
Even so, the second phase of market testing in 1977 was conducted, but this time in four pilot cities: Denver, Richmond, Tampa and Tulsa. Unfortunately, the tests were not so satisfactory as they thought, because people didn’t know what to do with the new product, and advertising was not good enough to entice them to experiment and buy. The blame was attributed to the marketing department since they did not give great importance to the innovation — the launching campaign consisted only in distributing explanatory brochures, and of some samples.
Fortunately, Nicholson didn’t give up so easily and thought that the reason the product didn’t sell was that it was new and people didn’t understand its value before buying. So a year after the flop, in 1978, 3M tried one more time and choose the city of Boise, in the state of Idaho, to do a free sample distribution action which was a huge success: more than 90% of Boiseans companies that were sent the free samples re-ordered additional units, and the tests were lengthened to eleven more American states.
The work team began to refine some of the essential requirements for designing the product, as:
1. The glue should only be applied on one side of the paper, covering only the surface, to allow its handling.
2. The amount of glue on this surface should be sufficient, so as not to strain very hard, damaging the material where it was placed.
The brand was officially introduced in 1980, including the distribution of free samples to the chief executives of Fortune 500 companies and their secretaries.
How this huge success is protected?
According to World Intelectual Property Organization (WIPO), the Intellectual Property (IP) term refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.
IP is protected in law by, for example, patents, copyright and trademarks, which enable people to earn recognition or financial benefit from what they invent or create. By striking the right balance between the interests of innovators and the wider public interest, the IP system aims to foster an environment in which creativity and innovation can flourish.
After 28 years on the company, Spencer Silver, co-founder of Post-it Notes, retired from 3M with more than 22 US patents into his name. The “sticky substance”, that nowadays we can found in any post-it, lead to a patent a years later after the discovery, because no one knew it yet, but this substance contained an important discovery called microspheres.
Until 3M’s patent expired in the 1990s, Post-it type notes were produced only in the company’s plant in Cynthiana, Kentucky. Once 3M’s patent on the Post-It Note expired, numerous competitors began producing similar products, to the point where presently there are several companies producing sticky notes of all shapes, colours, and sizes.
Post-it Brand and the Canary Yellow colour are trademarks of 3M and although 3M’s patent expired, “Post-it” and the original notes’ distinctive yellow colour remain registered company trademarks.
This company haven’t stopped to innovate all over the years — two great examples are Post-it Extreme Notes, launched in 2018, designed to be more durable and water-resistant and to stick to a variety of surfaces to which regular Post-It notes do not easily adhere, and Evernote, a software intended to provide information about a note file. Post-it Brand teamed up with Evernote, the organizational note-taking app, that can work with the smartphone’s camera, snap, save and share Post-it Notes in addition to creating auto-tags, reminders and notebooks. This last innovation is also protected through a trademark of Evernote Corporation 3M.
A success story known by everyone
What most people forget is that it took more than 10 years for this product to finally get the internal support to reach its target market. Congratulations not only to the inventors but to those workers from 3M who dedicated to improving the product until they find a way that shows the right value for it to become a successful innovation.