ocean yamaha/Flickr (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

It’s a fact. If you’re near a garage or the underside of a sink, you’re almost certainly close to a bottle of WD40. The oil and water displacement spray with its ubiquitous blue, yellow, and red can is everywhere. That’s a testament to the product’s phenomenal business success. But this success didn’t come easily or through slick marketing tactics.

A southern California start

WD-40 began as a product created by San Diego-based Rocket Chemical Company. This small, three-person company set a goal to create rust-prevention solvents and degreasers for the aerospace industry. After 40 tries, they found the right formula and named it in honor of what it is and how long it took to create the product. The product’s first customer was the aerospace company Convair. They used it for their Atlas Missle, but employees liked the product so much that they began sneaking it out of their offices and into their homes. That’s what gave the company the idea to add the product to aerosol cans for smaller scale sales and distribution.

Phenomenal growth

The product growth was intense. It made its first appearance on store shelves in 1958. By 1960 the company was selling an average of 45 cases a day from the trunks of salespersons’ cars. The sales happened in parking lots of San Diego’s hardware and sporting goods stores. Demand for WD-40 seemed unstoppable and by 1969, the entire company was renamed after the product.  By 1970, the company went public and its stock price increased by 61% on the first day. Though many had tried to imitate it, even packing their products in similarly labeled blue and yellow cans, their success was hard to duplicate. The company’s sales reached $50.2 million by 1983 and by 1993 it was found to be in 4 out of every 5 households. Strong sales have continued to this day.

Legendary uses for WD-40

Through the years, the product has helped everyday users with a variety of tasks, with 2,000 documented uses for the product. Beyond loosening screws, it has been used to remove everything from stuck rings to chewing gum. Not surprisingly, it has been rumored that it’s been used in some pretty extraordinary ways, too. These include use by an Asian bus driver who had to remove a python from the undercarriage of his vehicle. There’s also a story told where police officers used the spray to dislodge a naked burglar from an air conditioning vent. If the spray can do these things, what can’t it do?

A common sense, no-frills marketing strategy

So what’s behind this product’s success?  WD-40’s growth is based on a common sense approach, a strong product, and only selectively investing in major marketing efforts. At the core of this strategy is describing the product for what it is — a multi-use tool. And when your product removes everything from chewing gum to large snakes and criminals, this description is more than appropriate. Highlighting the versatility of their product has had immense benefits for the company. Rather than positioning itself as a single-use tool, the company maintains a multi-pronged approach allows it to be sold through a large number of sales channels. It seems almost everyone can find a use for it.

The company’s success also reflects a focus on core, traditional areas in business. Their product remains small and delivers on what it promises to do. Its staff is small (just 450 employees) but dedicated and focused and there’s a good company culture for them to work in. The product has a global reach in 176 countries. Its reach is supported by a solid, reliable distribution network. It seems that everything the company, from how it does business to the products it brings into its portfolio, aligns with a single goal: solving customer problems. And who can question a common sense approach that seems to be working so well?