billion business in 1993, according to SkyBox International, a Durham, N.C., card manufacturer, based on public records and surveys of distributors and retailers. Baseball accounted for half of all trading card sales.
Trading cards have a long history, said Larry Canale, editor of Tuff Stuff and Collect!, Richmond, Va., two leading trading card publications. Introduced by tobacco companies in the 1880s, andoffered by food brands for decades, their popularity has been cyclic.
New printing technologies that made high-end graphics cost-effective gave the industry its latest jolt in the late 1980s, experts say. Aggressive entrants like Upper Deck Co. challenged veterans like No. 1 card marketer Fleer Corp. and Topps Co.
Trading cards intended as product premiums have been "coat-tailing on the current craze for baseball cards," said John Eisendrath, VP-sales at Motivation Marketing a Glenview, Ill., premium incentive program company.
"Many of us grew up on baseball cards," said Cameron Bussard, group manager-marketing services, Upper Deck, which has produced sports trading cards for clients like Denny's, McDonald's Canada, Miller Brewing Co. and Little Debbie snack foods.
"I don't care who you are, you don't throw trading cards away," said Tom Munson, president, TCM Associates, Des Plaines, Ill., creators of Deere & Co.'s 1994 series and Caterpillar's card program.
For Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., now on its third Ageless Iron tractor series, trading card promotions provide a natural tie-in to customer relationship marketing.
Winnebago Industries talked with Sears, Caterpillar and Deere before rolling its trading cards. "These were all companies with recognized names in their own industry," said Roger Martin, marketing director. "Our brand name is generic for motor home." Winnebago's first promotion last June "hasn't gone gangbusters," he said, though "we're fairly pleased." Some dealers thought the idea "too unconventional."
Sears' popular Craftsman Tool series is in its third year, said Andy Ginger, national marketing manager-Home Improvement Group. "Putting together a set of cards is like collecting tools in the basement." For 1995, Sears increased production to 3.6 million cards, sold in packs of 12 for 99 (cents). Jim Fassel Advertising, Schaumburg, Ill., handles.
When trading cards as a collectible are going strong, mainstream marketers consider premium trading cards a no-lose strategy.
Cards offer "strategic flexibility," said Mike Zeman, president of Rapp Collins Communications, Minneapolis. "You have the choice of an immediate reward-the impact premium, or a delayed reward-a mail-in offer for collector tins, for example."
Tony's frozen pizza, which has issued sports trading cards on and off since 1984, scored "double-digit growth" with its 1992-93 NBA cards, said Dan Koch, marketing director (and no relationship to the writer).
Denny's pitched its state-of-the-art baseball hologram cards in 1991, and uses them as a tie-in to its Classic Hits restaurant promotion each summer. "It's one of the strongest promotions we've ever done," said Debbie Atkins, public relations manager.
The program, backed by print ads from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Greenville, S.C., has taken on a life of its own: Many dealers hold local swap meets for customers. But the extended baseball strike has put this year's promotion "on hold."
How do you measure the success of a trading card promotion?
"A second printing," sighed Mr. Eisendrath of Motivation Marketing. "Each year we give away all the cards, and that's millions of baseball cards," said Denny's Ms. Atkins. Goodyear's Ageless Iron I series "was so popular we had to reprint it," said Mr. Gray.
"Ultimately, all promotions should be tied to some sales lift," said Rapp Collins' Mr. Zeman.
How important is the secondary market? It may convince a reluctant marketer, said Mr. Eisendrath, if they can recoup costs by selling cards at retail.
Dave Czerwinksi oversaw Milk-Bone's anti-drug canine cards while at children's publisher Western Publishing. Now senior director-strategic alliances at Applause, a Woodland Hills, Calif., toymaker, Mr. Czerwinski said market saturation is a problem. When trading card programs proliferate, "the collectibility aspect is diminished."
The hotness of the overall industry also appears to have diminished, mainly because of the baseball and hockey disputes. SkyBox projects 1994 numbers will show the overall market was "down slightly."
But interest in premium cards will likely remain high for another year or two before leveling off, say most insiders.
But Mr. Ginger says Sears quit using bubble gum. "We gave that up after the first year. How can you possibly keep it fresh?"