A few years ago, a video game company reached out to Sealed Air Corp. with a strange request: It wanted to license the trademarked name of Bubble Wrap for a stress-relieving app it was working on.
A 2012 study by Kelton Research revealed that one minute of Bubble Wrap popping furnished the same stress-relieving effect as a 33-minute massage, so why not make an app for it? Unfortunately, things didn’t work out. “They couldn’t find a sound that was satisfying enough,” said Sealed Air vp of global brand and content marketing Jenn Grabenstetter.
No surprise there. Anyone who’s spent time popping Bubble Wrap knows that there’s no substitute for the real thing. And while most Americans probably don’t think very much about Bubble Wrap, the truth is that it’s a product that’s integral to the national economy—and never more so than right now.
Thanks to consumer fears over the novel coronavirus, online shopping has surged (to $82.5 billion in May alone) and, with it, the expectation that everything will arrive at your doorstep in a box. The U.S. Postal Service is moving up to 80% more packages than it did this time last year, and FedEx and UPS are facing demand they usually see only during the holidays. And what do many of these boxes have in common? Bubble Wrap.
Bubble Wrap remains Sealed Air’s founding—and famous—product. It’s also something of a double-edged sword. While Bubble Wrap is in fact a trademarked name in the United States, in Europe and other parts of the world it’s just a name for a wrap with air bubbles. And even within the U.S., the name is so well known that—like Kleenex, Q-tips and Tupperware—it’s rarely recognized as an actual brand.
Or some form of it. “That surge isn’t all boxes with Bubble Wrap inside,” Grabenstetter said. “But we have seen an increase in what we consider basic ecommerce shipping solutions.” These days, those increasingly include bubble mailer envelopes, which Amazon favors. Even so, it’s essentially Bubble Wrap.
It’s a pity that the product’s inventors, both of whom died in 1994, didn’t live to see it. In 1957, engineer Alfred Fielding and his Swiss business partner Marc Chavannes were experimenting in their New Jersey machine shop. Legend has it that they were looking for a way to create 3D wallpaper or maybe house insulation—nobody seems sure. What’s certain is that they found a way to create round air pockets on sheet plastic.
But they had a problem. As with Silly Putty and WD-40, the invention preceded a viable use for it. Fortunately for Fielding and Chavannes, a marketer by the name of Frederick Bowers saw something they didn’t. In 1959, IBM was about to roll out its Model 1401 decimal computer, a colossus it planned to ship by stuffing crumpled newspapers into the crates. Bowers pitched IBM, and the future of Bubble Wrap was assured.
Since then, Bubble Wrap hasn’t just conquered the logistics sector but also the rest of us. There’s the bride who wore a gown made of Bubble Wrap, Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day (Jan. 27) and the Denver-area Boy Scouts that set a Guinness World Record for most people (2,681) popping at once.
And how about that Bubble Wrap app? Turns out a company called Lima Sky did come out with one, but not everyone’s happy with it. “If you’re going to make a Bubble Wrap game, you have to make it sound like popping Bubble Wrap,” grumbled one reviewer. “And this doesn’t.”
Factory Air engineer Alfred Fielding (1) and his Swiss business partner Marc Chavannes (2) came up with Bubble Wrap in 1957, going on to patent their invention (3) and make a fortune. Though the wrap itself is eminently simple, it’s not so easy to manufacture, as this machinery from the early years (4) makes evident.