For a brief period in time, the world was round and flat.
At least that was a belief held by kids in the early ’90s, when the popular game of Pogs—those long-forgotten cardboard caps collecting dust in our parents’ storage closets—formed the center of our universe. Save for Hawaii natives, however, few realize that Pogs’ wide-spread influence on pop culture actually sprang from a tangy Hawaiian fruit drink.
It was a beverage company, Passion Orange Guava (POG), that was responsible for inspiring a generation of kids in the grip of Nintendo’s early years to put down their Game Boys and pick up an old-school form of entertainment originally created in the 1930s. But instead of riding that wave to generate widespread brand recognition, POG juice was left behind in the wake of the game’s runaway success.
It’s a cautionary tale that speaks to the viral nature of the Pogs’ growth. “They were very cheap to manufacture, easy to understand, discreet, easily spreadable, and rooted in a shared, collective memory,” says historian Burl Burlingame, co-author of Coverama: The Collector’s Guide to Antique Hawaiian Milk Covers, which chronicles the game’s origins. “In that way, they were like a meme.”
Another aspect of the game that fueled its rapid ascent was its its ability to tap into the zeitgeist of the times: Pogs were literally blank canvases for anything people might care about. If you were to dig into any random collection today, you could pinpoint who was running for President, the film that changed American independent filmmaking, the hottest player in the NBA, and the most notorious murder trial in American history during the game’s most relevant years.
But before brands saw the potential of Pogs as mini billboards to market to kids, the collectible cardboard circles had humble beginnings. They were originally used to seal gallons of Maui company Haleakala Dairy’s product line, including Passion Orange Guava. Their functionality expanded in 1991 when Blossom Galbiso, a guidance school teacher on Oahu’s North Shore, decided to teach her students a non-violent recess game. It was a game her grandparents played on Hawaii’s plantations in the ‘20s and ‘30s using milk caps, when it was still commonplace to package milk in glass bottles. (It is thought that Pogs most likely derived from a similar Japanese game called Menko, which was popular during the Edo period.) When Galbiso revived it, she kept all the same rules; the only thing she changed was using Passion Orange Guava’s disposable lids in place of milk caps, and in doing so, she unwittingly sparked the Pog craze we remember today.
Its popularity didn’t stay sequestered in Hawaii for very long. At #PeakPOG, roughly ‘94 to ‘95, every fast-food chain, cartoon series, sports team, and hair-metal band had its own set with limited-edition designs. Southern California entrepreneur Alan Rypinski is credited with sparking this cottage industry on the mainland, once projected to be worth $500 million. When the Canadian printing company manufacturing Passion Orange Guava’s packaging began receiving a sudden influx of requests for just the lids to send to Hawaii, Rypinski saw flashing dollar signs. He purchased the POG trademark from Haleakala Dairy to start his own cash cow: a caps-only business catering to the new legions of Pog obsessives. In forming the the World POG Federation, an official Pogman mascot, and diverse licensing agreements with fast-food companies, movie studios, and Wal-Marts, Rypinski helped game spread to all corner of the U.S.—and further removed its association with the juice brand that ruled the island playgrounds.
By 1994 alone, 350 million Pogs were sold nationwide. In the state of California alone, Pog sales generated $10 million a week. By this point, food brands exploring marketing campaigns around gaming was nothing new. McDonald’s first began offering its seasonal Monopoly game sweepstakes in 1987. 7-Up unveiled Spot: The Video Game on NES and other systems in 1993. But neither infiltrated the public consciousness—or parents’ wallets—like Pogs. Haleakala Dairy, however, wasn’t able to retain control of its messaging, a lost opportunity for what could have been one of the biggest coups in food-brand marketing history.
For the vast majority of fans, it was a game unassociated with the product. POG juice failed to align itself to the game’s rise, but missteps by Rypinski turned it into a fad rather than an enduring trend. The first blunder was letting the market become too saturated too fast, collaborating with every company interested in reaching youth audience.
“Basically it was consumed by its own success and excess,” Burlingame says. “[The caps were] so cheap and easy to replicate that everyone jumped into the game. People started putting sparkles on them, 3D-ing them, trying to make them unique in some way. There was too much product; you couldn’t keep up.”
Fox’s The Tick Animated Series was the first TV show of many to promote itself using Pogs. The D.A.R.E. program zeroed in on American kids’ addiction to Pogs as part of its curriculum to prevent drug addiction. And when Pope John Paul II visited New Jersey in 1995, the Roman Catholic Church ordered 50,000 POGs with the Pope’s face on them to hand out to the parishes’ kids in the area.
“Pogs is a lesson for brands,” says Matt Lucero, associate creative director at Carrot.is, a New York-based ad agency focused on millennial consumers. “Paying attention to what your consumer is doing with your brand is extremely important, because as much as you control the messaging about how they should use it, the consumers will always decide how it fits their lives better. Unless you embrace it, it could spell out the brand being redefined right out from under your nose.”
The inability to leverage its own product ultimately defined the legacy of Passion Orange Guava (or lack thereof). By forfeiting its trademark and merely viewing Pogs as a promotional tool, Haleakala Dairy allowed its signature cap to transform into a powerful movement beyond the food world, leaving its true origins buried. This history stands in stark contrast to the successful gaming synergies created by companies like McDonald’s, which made it impossible to divorce its toys from its Happy Meals.
“[McDonald’s] does everything a great marketing campaign is supposed to do,” Lucero says. “It increases brand awareness, and it creates brand affinity, which in turn creates loyalty. The only thing Pogs did for the juice brand was create loyal [gamers].”
Today, Passion Orange Guava must cope with the fact that its acronym inspires intense ’90s nostalgia for the game, not the juice—a sour ending for a sweet product.