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Champions of Design: Pez

The Austrian sweet brand has become better known around the world for its collectable dispenser designs.

Pez began life as a simple peppermint-flavoured sweet, but the invention of the Pez dispenser turned it into a favourite childhood toy - and a savvy marketing tool.

The Pez sweet, created by Austrian businessman Eduard Haas in 1927, preceded its familiar toy dispensers by almost 30 years; it was originally sold as a breath mint in tins. Haas took the name from the letters in pfefferminze, the German word for peppermint and its key ingredient.

He set up Haas Food Manufacturing Corporation in his hometown of Vienna, where it is still based. As an anti-smoking advocate, Haas began marketing the pressed, block-shaped sweets as an aid for quitting the habit. With the help of Oscar Uxa, a lighter-shaped dispenser was created, along with the mechanism that is still used in Pez dispensers today.

Expanding into the US market, the company found success elusive. Rethinking its approach, the US division, led by executive Curtis Allina, came up with the idea of fruit-flavoured Pez and toy dispensers that would appeal to a wider children's market.

Introduced in 1955, the first toy dispensers featured Santa Claus and a robot character. Slightly different from today's design, the dispenser character was fully formed from head to toe. These were the only fully formed designs; successive toys have featured the tilting head atop a plain, oblong body.

In 1958 Popeye became the first of many popular cartoon characters licensed to appear on the toy. In the 60s, Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pinocchio, Pluto and US cartoon favourites such as Bullwinkle, the moose from Rocky and Bullwinkle, adorned the toy. From superheroes and presidents to Hello Kitty and Muppets star Kermit the Frog, more than 1500 different dispenser designs have been created.

The Star Wars Pez character collection, released in the late-90s, is the most successful to date, and a Star Wars collector set released in 2005 was the first limited-edition set to be produced by the company. The best-selling single Pez character to date is the perennial classic Santa Claus figure.

Further limited-edition sets have since been created, including characters from The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, The Lord of the Rings and even an Elvis collection. Pez's popularity continues, with each new generation of children and avid adult fans around the world keen to collect the characters.

Refining the toy over the years with the development of better materials and production methods, small feet were added to allow the dispensers to stand upright; variations have included a collection of interchangeable rubber heads and a plush toy dispenser.

Every year 55m dispensers and 4.6bn sweets are manufactured by Pez and sold in 80 countries worldwide.


BRAND LESSON

James Joice client director, JKR

By James Joice, client director, JKR

It's ironic that Pez was created to help adults stop smoking, because the product's development over subsequent years provides a master class in how to appeal to children.

As the first brand to offer a sweet that doubles as a toy, it couldn't really go too far wrong, especially when the sweets are almost incidental. With Pez, the packaging is the product.

As a child, it's the character's head at the top of the dispenser, whether that be Mickey Mouse or Hello Kitty, that has you tugging on your parent's sleeve. To the parent, it's an almost equally easy sell - an inexpensive way to give their child a little bit of whatever fad is ruling the playground. It also provides them with some easy entertainment, because tipping back the head is a seriously fun way to serve up a sweet.

The dispensing mechanism is actually a clever, ergonomic design disguised as a bit of kitsch, and it's the thing that gives Pez real personality.

It's also the main reason the stick normally gets emptied in next to no time. The other reason is the reload; filling up the chamber with more sweets makes you feel pretty sophisticated as a child, so it's another good excuse to keep eating.

As well as the circular satisfaction in consuming Pez, the countless editions mean they are also perfect for collecting. So, while the brand might have started out to cure one addiction, it has surely replaced it with another.


TIMELINE

1927: Eduard Haas made the first Pez mints. They became popular among friends and family.

1948: Oscar Uxa designed the original Pez dispenser.

1952: A US subsidiary, based in New York City was set up to break the US market. A patent for its toy dispensers was obtained.

1991: The first Pez collectors' convention was held in the US.

1993: Chrisitie's in New York held its first auction of pop-culture lots, including Pez products.

1993: Pez made the front cover of Forbes magazine.

2011: Pez opened a visitors' centre at its US headquarters in Connecticut.

2011: A set of 'William and Kate' Pez dispensers was created to celebrate the royal wedding.

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