Cashing in on the new millennium fever

by Catherine Makino

At the turn of the millennium, marketer Kenneth Walker will be seeing lots of zeros. Not only will he be seeing the numbers 01-01-00 everywhere, he’ll be seeing lots of zeros coming behind dollar signs.

Walker has figured out a way to cash in on the millennium: His company, Walker Group/Designs, obtained a registered trademark for the numerals 01-01-00.

Using those numbers as a marketing theme, Walker has launched his millennium line of clothing and novelties at more than 200 department stores in Japan, and more than 4,000 in the U.S. As of October, shoppers have forked over more than 10 billion yen for such items as his 01-01-00 key rings, pens, T-shirts and active wear. There are also wristwatches with an alarm that will sound only once.

“I’m the only one who knows what it will play,” he said. “And it’s not ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ “

Beyond the traditional items, Walker got creative. One example: a snow globe with a miniature computer inside that “explodes” snowflakes of zeros and ones when shaken.

He got the idea in 1994 when he was reading an article about the potentially disastrous computer glitch that would occur during the millennium.

“I’m not a tech head. I couldn’t understand what it meant. So I scribbled down the numbers 01-01-00 and thought, hey, that looks cool. That’ll be a brand. It was the language of the next millennium.”

Unlike other new century brands on the market, which may have a limited demographic appeal because their trademarks and logos take for granted that the consumer is fluent in English, 01-01-00 does not rely on words. The numbers translate into virtually all languages, which is a huge selling point in the global marketplace.

“The unique merits of the 01-01-00 mark are its universal appeal,” Walker said. “It will work in China, Germany and Brooklyn.”

To prove it, sales of the 01-01-00 products have exceeded $100 million worldwide since Walker first launched his millennium line in August 1998.

“It’s bigger than even I anticipated and I’m the proverbial optimist,” he said.

In fact, Walker says that it was this optimism that has made the 01-01-00 brand a success. It also helps, he said, to have a solid sense of adventure. Walker, who dabbles in race car driving and has been on expeditions to the North and South Pole, meets that qualification as well.

Walker, 57, who lives with his wife, Mary, in a New York City apartment, says there’s no secret to success. “Think big,” he said. “It’s as easy as it is to think small.”

Instead of focusing on the negative message of computer problems that could occur during the millennium, Walker worked on promoting his logo.

Walker first did market research; he used the Olympics, the Superbowl and the World Cup as frames of reference. He also took his idea to the streets, asking a model to wear the logo hat to clubs to get people’s responses. “At one club, she was offered $250 for that hat,” he said.

Convincing manufacturers that the concept would be successful wasn’t easy. “After five or six meetings, we felt like fashion models on a go-see,” Walker said. “We knew we were pretty, but no one wanted to hire us.”

So Walker approached retailers for a reality check. They embraced the idea and recommended licensees. Group 111 Designs acted as the liaison between the retailers and manufacturers and the response was overwhelming. “We have more than 40 licensees now and they include some big names in fashion.”

Some of the upscale brands include ties from Nicole Miller to be sold exclusively at her stores; knitwear from Andrienne Vittadini knitwear; sportswear from Joie Natori; and scarves and ties from Salvatore Ferragamo.

Kaz Toyota, Walker’s Japanese consultant, used the same marketing concept in Japan.

“Usually I approach the manufacturers first, but this time I did the opposite,” Toyota said. “I met with the retailers and then the manufacturers. The retailers offered us space right away. When the manufacturers heard about it, they also wanted in.”

There are six manufacturers in Japan now producing Walker’s millennium line.

Toyota also sold the license to Nihon Kogyo Shinbun, a subsidiary of the Fuji Sankei Group. They now manufacture Walker’s logo on caps, T-shirts and watches with 1 percent of their total sales going to UNICEF in New York and Taiwan.

It also helped that Walker has done business in Japan before. He has designed retail space for the department stores Takashimaya, Parco, Isetan and Mitsukoshi.

But Walker didn’t come by this success easily. It took him four years and $500,000 of his own money to trademark the sequence of digits.

Before Walker’s millennium concept, he had his own retail design company. His clients included Citibank, F.A.O. Schwartz and the Gap. In 1987 he sold the firm and began a consulting business.

Walker graduated from Brown University in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree and received a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 1966.

Ask Walker where he’ll be on the eve of the millennium and he says, “By then, I think I’ll be so tired, I just hope I don’t sleep through it.”