The WD-40 family
The WD-40 family

Supply audit: WD-40

1 September 2017

The 60-year-old magic formula that can fix, remove or free-up anything – and some think it smells good too

What’s the deal behind this iconic spray?

There is some confusion. Many believe that company boss Norm Larsen engineered the formula, but others argue it was Iver Norman Lawson, and that history has confused the names. The story goes that in 1953 three scientists were holed up in a San Diego laboratory, experimenting with a solution for ballistic missile rust protection. They called themselves the Rocket Chemical Company. After failing 39 times, the trio found success at the 40th attempt, and named their product Water Displacement – 40th Formula, shortened to…

I see what they did there. So if it started with missiles, what does it do now?

Everything, apparently. Although the spray is famous for silencing squeaky hinges, customers have discovered more than 2,000 uses. A single spray can untangle gummy hair, lubricate guitar strings and kill cockroaches. Employees of an early client, General Dynamics, discovered WD-40’s multiple domestic uses and began sneaking boxes out of the factory. Larsen caught on and realised that he could start selling to the consumer market, which he did in 1958.

So what is the magic formula?

A mix of hydrocarbons and other chemicals, it’s called the secret sauce
for a reason. Legend has it that the recipe, written on a notepad, is locked
behind vault doors on Rosecrans Street, San Diego. The creators were so worried about the theft of their formula they refused to patent it. Countless fraudsters have tried and failed to mimic the brand. The company’s current CEO Garry O’Ridge says the business keeps a collection of knock-offs in a room, morbidly nicknamed The Mortuary.

Creepy. How much are they selling now?

Back in 1958, the three scientists were packing their car boots with boxes and selling their wares to local hardware stores. Two years later, in 1960, they hired four salesmen and sold around 45 boxes every week. Fast forward 60 years and the product is sold in 176 countries, employs over 400 people and exceeds sales of a million cans a week.

How did it get so popular?

A mixture of clever marketing and a series of unfortunate events. Hurricane Carla devastated the US Gulf Coast in 1961 and WD-40 drove to the rescue. Employees gave up their Saturday to produce extra concentrate and the victims used the lubricant to recondition thousands of vehicles and equipment damaged in the floods. In 1968, the company started sending samples to trade shows, magazines and even shipped 10,000 sachets a month to US troops in Vietnam to help protect their weapons. It came as no surprise when, in 1969, the company decided to rebrand and named itself after its only product.

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