Sophie la Girafe is a 7-inch-tall rubber teething toy. It is also an international star.
Priced at $25 in the U.S., compared with less than $5 for more ordinary teethers, Sophie is stocked in high-end baby boutiques around the world, including Mexico, Japan , and Australia. The offspring of celebrities such as Sandra Bullock and Kate Hudson have been photographed clutching the giraffe.
In the arsenal of branded products that now accessorize babyhood, it’s easier to understand why parents spend more for a complex item like the Bugaboo stroller—or for a baby clothing line from a designer such as Stella McCartney—than for a rubber teether. With its brown spots, pink cheeks and black eyes, Sophie is simple: It squeaks when squeezed. Every Sophie is made in a small factory in eastern France.
But Sophie’s simplicity and small-scale French origins—carefully communicated by her maker, the French company Vulli—have played a big role in the toy’s success outside its home country.
Vulli’s sales of €22 million ($29 million) have more than quadrupled since 2006, just before Sophie was first sold outside France. This year, for the first time, the company expects to sell more outside of France than domestically.
That’s saying something, because in France, Sophie is a national tradition. In 2010, Vulli sold 816,000 giraffes in France, and 828,000 babies were born, meaning that nearly every French newborn got one.
Sophie isn’t nearly as elite at home in France. Local supermarkets sell the blister-packaged toy for $12, less than half of its U.S. sticker price.
For decades, Vulli was content to subsist on Sophie’s domestic success. When Serge Jacquemier was hired out of retirement to be chief executive in 2006, he found Sophie’s container was printed only in French. Vulli’s main owners, two French families, thought the giraffe “is so typically French, it can’t sell elsewhere,” he said. (Mr. Jacquemier, 67, is a minority shareholder in the company.)
But Mr. Jacquemier was convinced Sophie could travel. “What difference could there be between a Chinese, American or Russian baby?” he thought. He set out to understand why Sophie was such a hit in France—aside from the fact that most French mothers had once had their own giraffes.
The CEO hired a psychotherapist, who concluded the rubber chew toy tapped into all five senses: sight with its strongly contrasting colors; hearing with its easy squeak; taste because it is easy to chomp on, and the touch and smell of the natural rubber. The toy’s petite size made it easy for babies to grip.
Mr. Jacquemier decided to translate these attributes into seven different languages. He also printed up new high-end biodegradable boxes for export, complete with an image of the Eiffel Tower.
Hélène Dumoulin-Montgomery, the head of Sophie’s U.S. distributor, had been peddling the toy in the U.S. for a few years. She had seen Sophie featured in some mom blogs and a couple of high-end boutiques, such as The Elegant Child of Beverly Hills, but the toy only took off around 2007. The new, French-themed packaging was key. Luxury-goods makers have long benefited from the made-in-France halo.
Also, just as Mr. Jacquemier was rolling out Sophie internationally in 2007, the toy industry was shaken by Mattel Inc.’s recall of 20 million toys. Some items featuring popular characters such as Elmo and Big Bird were believed to contain lead contamination introduced during manufacturing in China. In contrast, Sophie’s small-scale French production seemed virtuous.
Sophie, whose packaging also notes that it is phthalate-free and made of natural rubber, appeared at a time when parents have grown accustomed to splurging on baby products they perceive as better or safer. “Parents create pressure on other parents” to have the best baby items, says Ms. Dumoulin-Montgomery.
Julie Ohri, in Fishers, Ind., wasn’t sure the toy was worth its price when she put it on her wish list before her son was born. Now, she is a convert. Her 10-month-old clutches, squeaks, bashes and gnaws on it. And Ms. Ohri appreciates its material. “Everything else for babies seems to be made out of plastic,” she says.
The manufacturing of Sophie has changed little over the years. Because the making of rubber toys is more specialized than plastic, Mr. Jacquemier says the know-how that goes into Sophie’s production can’t be duplicated. “What has saved us is that producing in rubber is more difficult than plastic,” he adds. “Otherwise everyone would do it.” Vulli makes other toys but derives 72% of sales from Sophie and Sophie-branded products, such as the So’Pure line of organic blankets, teethers, and rattles.
Vats of natural Hevea rubber arrive from Malaysia every month at the factory on the outskirts of Rumilly, a small town with red-roofed houses at the base of the Alps. A worker pours the milky liquid into round plaster molds with the shapes of 10 giraffes fanning out from the center. The molds go into an oven where they rotate for a couple hours, coating the casts and creating a hollow rubber toy.
After their baking, the Sophies sit in boxes for two months while the moisture in the rubber evaporates. Then, in a drafty room, a half dozen women polish the giraffes, insert the whistle, spray them with food-grade paints and mark them by laser with a tracking number.
Sophie hasn’t been immune to doubts about safety. In December, right before the holiday rush, French consumer advocacy group UFC-Que Choisir published a report accusing Sophie of containing toxins. Mr. Jacquemier said the naturally occurring toxins in rubber, which have only become detectable recently thanks to new technology, are way below the safety standards the European Union will put in place next year.
But Mr. Jacquemier says he isn’t unwilling to consider new ways to make Sophie safer. Sophie products “must be irreproachable.”
See original article at the Wall Street Journal Online.