No. 9: Silly Bandz

A duo of Japanese designers wanted to rescue rubber bands from the trash. An American entrepreneur supersized the product and catered to kids. Now a multimillion-dollar U.S. business, Silly Bandz has become serious stuff.

In less than two years, the festive rubber bracelets made by Silly Bandz and its competitors have triggered a mania among schoolkids and penetrated celebrity fashion circles. It may well be 2010’s best seller … with nary an ad launched.

The appeal lies in the band’s shape-shifting: On the wrist — and as many tween fashionistas prefer, stacked up by the dozens up the arm — they wear like bracelets. Once off, the silicone reverts into shapes, from sea creatures to Save the Gulf symbols — and therein lies the collectible, addictive nature of the bands that have snared thousands of fans around the globe.

For a generation (or more) weaned on Xboxes and iPods, Silly Bandz and its imitators are a throwback to the days of pet milk caps and Beanie Babies. At $2.99 for a 12-pack, cheap ubiquity has fed the ardor. In the product’s early days, gift shops and drugstores sold out hundreds, if not thousands, within hours of the school day ending. Trade is common among Bandz owners, but pint-sized middlemen can make a killing reselling them in the school hallways: 25 cents on average but as much as 50 cents for special editions. (The packaging identifies its contents, making the hunt simpler.)

Classroom crackdowns (animal-shaped bracelets sting as much as regular rubber bands) barely dented the hoarding. Instead, as the gleeful maker of Zanybandz told the New York Times, “Getting banned fuels the craze like a five-gallon can of gasoline on a campfire.”

Celebrities from Sarah Jessica Parker and Shakira to Anthony Bourdain and Justin Bieber have co-opted the look. (In fact, Bieber now brands his own.) That’s right, Silly Bandz obsession doesn’t fall along the usual gender lines (in searches on Yahoo!, the online interest is split 50-50), nor does it depend on age. The toy has been used as a come-on in New York bars and has inspired adult-oriented knockoffs (Kama Sutra rubber bands, anyone?).

Then there are the competitors on the Bandz-wagon, making bracelets for Major League Baseball and Disney. There are even bands for the faithful: BelieverBands for Christians, Biblical Bandz for Jews.

Like instant noodles and karaoke, the Silly Bandz concept was born in Japan, with good-earth intentions. Award-winning Japanese designers Yumiko Ohashi and Masanori Haneda made rubber bands into appealing animal shapes — pet, zoo, and dinosaur — so they’d be reused rather than trashed. A limited U.S. release caused New York magazine to gush back in 2002, “They can be worn as bracelets on very small wrists.”

But it took Robert Croak, CEO of Brainchild Products Imports, to get the multimillion-dollar business snapping. He and his factory manager espied the animal-shaped rubber bands at a trade show in China. Croak cranked up the size and changed the shapes. A Learning Express store in Birmingham, Alabama, has been traced as Silly Bandz ground zero. From there, the virus spread south and east, stormed through the heartland and headed west, and hit Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K. by summer.

Brainchild Products Imports went from making $10,000 last year to more than $100 million in 2010. The company bolstered the local Ohio economy (more than tripling the staff to just under 70) and hired 3,000 factory employees in China.

Incidentally, as for Silly Bandz’s environmental friendliness, the bands are crafted of “100% medical-grade silicone,” which is hard to recycle. According to Nitash Balsara, a chemical professor at the University of California at Berkeley, silicone tends to be cross-linked — that is, the “entire object is one big module.” That makes them impossible to melt and reform (like glass), although they can be ground up and reused, like rubber tires that find new life as artificial garden mulch.

But in the Bandz-emonium, that kind of consideration isn’t top of mind. Indeed, more Silly variants —  necklaces, watches, and a video game — have been hurried out to tap into the frenzy. Projections for a Silly Bandz future? Some predict a burnout soon, but CEO Croak sees bright, rubbery possibilities. After all, he found another use for the springy rubber band: holding his wad of cash.

–Vera H-C Chan