Some products sell well when first introduced. Many more fail miserably. Very few of them sell so well that they fundamentally impact American culture. This is 24/7 Wall St.’s list of 10 products that did just that.
Besides selling in droves, many of the products on this list changed American culture. While each product is in a different industry — from smartphones, to video game consoles and music albums — there are clear similarities among the leaders. All the products that made the list were innovative in their respective categories when released. Before Star Wars, people never camped out in front of the theater to see the midnight debut. Harry Potter was the first major fantasy book series particularly geared toward tween readers.
Many of the best-selling products were successful because they were a franchise. Though both were instantaneous successes, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) continues to release new versions of the iPad and iPhone. The 11th generation of the Toyota (NYSE: TM) Corolla, another best-selling product, hit the markets just this May. The Mario franchise has turned into 31 titles.
Most of the products on our list — although not all — have reached a wide demographic. The Rubik’s Cube could be purchased and played by anyone. Harry Potter, while initially geared toward a tween audience, was eventually enjoyed by people of all ages. Even the iPad, while generally considered a luxury item, has multiple features and price points.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed product categories that generate attention from many groups and command significant and frequently long-lasting loyalty. We then identified individual products that had the highest sales in their category. Toys, consumer electronics, books and movies can be passing interests. However, the most successful of these are the best-selling products of all time.
These are the best-selling products of all time.
1. Rubik’s Cube
> Category: Toy
> Units sold/sales: 350 million units
> Parent Company: Seven Towns Ltd.
Ernő Rubik created the first prototype of the “Magic Cube” in 1974 in Budapest, Hungary. An American toy manufacturer bought the product license and renamed it the Rubik’s Cube in 1980, making the puzzle an international sensation. At the height of the toy’s popularity in the mid-1980s, the company estimates that as much as one-fifth of the world’s population had tried solving the Rubik’s Cube. With its eye-catching colors, affordability and the puzzle’s level of difficulty, the Rubik’s Cube has maintained popularity over the years.
> Category: Smartphone
> Units sold/sales: 250 million units
> Parent Company: Apple
In just five years, 250 million iPhones have been shipped, making it the top-selling smartphone to date. Apple’s iPhone is typically the top seller for Verizon (NYSE: VZ), AT&T (NYSE: T) and Sprint (NYSE: S). Research firm Strategy Analytics estimates that the iPhone has generated about $150 billion in revenue for Apple since its introduction to the market in June 2007. There are five generations of the iPhone: the original, 3G, 3GS, 4 and 4S, and more likely ahead. With newer generations often more popular than previous ones, Apple’s iPhone sales are likely to continue to grow at a healthy pace.
3. Harry Potter
> Category: Book series
> Units sold/sales: 450 million units
> Parent Company: Scholastic (U.S. publisher)
Scholastic Corporation (NASDAQ: SCHL) released the first Harry Potter book of the series in the United States in the 1990s, under the name Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The book was an instant success, only to be repeated with each successive installment. Harry Potter became the top-selling series, with sales totalling $7.7 billion. The novels made J.K. Rowling one of the highest paid authors in the world and led to a similarly successful movie franchise. Recently, Rowling agreed to release e-book versions of the series, which grossed $1 million in three days. The final entry, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is one of the fastest selling books of all time, with more than 11 million copies sold in the first 24 hours of its release.
4. Michael Jackson Thriller
> Category: Album
> Units sold/sales: 110 million units
> Parent Company: Epic Records
The 30th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Thriller release by Epic Records will be this November. One of the first albums to use music videos as a promotional tool, it reached its status as best-selling album of all-time in just over a year. Jackson won eight Grammy Awards in 1984 for Thriller, including Album of the Year. Seven of the songs on the album were Billboard top ten hits. To put the King of Pop’s album sales in perspective, Justin Bieber’s My World (1 and 2) have collectively sold just 3.2 million.
5. Mario Franchise
> Category: Video game franchise
> Units sold/sales: 262 million units
> Parent Company: Nintendo
The character “Mario” debuted in 1981’s popular Donkey Kong franchise. Since then, the Italian plumber has appeared in dozens of titles, including at least 31 separate titles that have topped 1 million unit sales. One of the subfranchises, Super Mario, has alone sold more than 262 million units. While it is the most popular console video game franchise of all time, the Angry Birds mobile franchise, which creates phone and tablet application games, has recorded more than a billion downloads.
> Category: Tablet
> Units sold/sales: 67 million units
> Parent Company: Apple
Apple released the first iPad in April of 2010. The iPad was an instant success and became first commercially successful tablet computer. Recently, the company has launched the third generation of its hugely popular tablet computer. Since its release, more than 67 million iPads have been sold. To put this number in perspective, it took 24 years for Apple to sell the same number of computers. According to IDGConnect, 12% of iPad users in enterprise (at work, not home) no longer use their personal computer. And in the education sector, Apple sells two iPads for every computer.
7. Star Wars
> Category: Movies
> Units sold/sales: $4.54 billion in ticket sales
> Parent company: 20th Century Fox
In 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar became the highest-grossing U.S. film of all time. Adjusted for inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind remains the highest-grossing film, according to Box Office Mojo. However, when a film franchise is considered — and accounting for inflation — nothing comes close to George Lucas’s Star Wars. The original movie debuted in 1977, grossing more than $1.4 billion. With the five films that followed, ending with Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, the franchise grossed $4.54 billion.
8. Toyota Corolla
> Category: Vehicle
> Units sold/sales: 39 million cars
> Parent Company: Toyota
The Corolla has been selling for more than four decades, with the model evolving over 11 generations. Since it was first produced, Toyota has sold one Corolla every 40 seconds. The car was also the first the Japanese manufacturer that chose to produce in the U.S. — sales in the U.S. began in 1968. The current model gets 34 MPG and has a starting price of $16,130. Right behind the Corolla for best-selling vehicle is the Ford (NYSE: F) F-150 pickup.
> Category: Pharmaceutical
> Units sold/sales: $125 billion revenue
> Parent Company: Pfizer
Lipitor belongs to a class of drugs called statins that help lower the level of LDL — the so-called bad cholesterol — in the blood. It was developed by Warner-Lambert, which later merged with Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), and was approved for marketing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1997. Though Lipitor was not the first in its class, its ability to reduce cholesterol and significant advertising quickly propelled it to the top of its class of drugs. The same year that it was released, the FDA began to allow direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs. By 2008, the market size of drug advertising grew to more than $4.5 billion, and in 2009, Lipitor had the largest ad expenditure of any drug. This past November, Pfizer’s patent on the drug ended. Since 1997, the drug has had sales of over $125 billion, which amounts to 20% to 25% of Pfizer’s revenue during this time.
> Category: Video game console
> Units sold/sales: 300+ million units
> Parent Company: Sony
The first edition of the Sony (NYSE: SNE) PlayStation, released in 1995, was the Japanese electronics manufacturer’s foray into video games. Five years after the first PlayStation was released, Sony began selling the PlayStation 2, the second edition of its console. The PS2 went on to become the most popular gaming console of all time, selling more than 150 million units by the beginning of 2011. The PS3, which hit the market in 2006, has been less successful, but the franchise as a whole is by far the most popular in history, having sold well over 300 million units. The video gaming console has been bolstered by popular game franchises, including the Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto, and Gran Turismo series.
Michael A. Sauter, Lisa A. Nelson, Elisabeth Uible and Samuel Weigley