Pop quiz: What media event guarantees the most eyeballs for a brand?
The Super Bowl, right? Not a bad guess. Each year, some 114 million Americans (give or take) tune in to watch the football game and, of course, commercials for the brands that buy up the pricey ad time.
But there's one event that beats those numbers. And it, too, is about a ball. But this one isn't a pigskin that gets tossed around; it's a 6-ton sphere that's 12 feet in diameter. And the furthest this ball travels is to the top of a flagpole.
We speak, of course, of the New Year's Eve Ball atop 1 Times Square in New York. When the famous illuminated ball drops during the final 10 seconds of the year, an estimated 175 million Americans—1 billion people around the world—are watching on TV or the web. As Times Square Alliance president Tim Tompkins put it, "There's no other time I can think of where [that many] Americans are doing the same thing."
And while the Super Bowl sells commercial slots for some 67 brands, the New Year's ball drop highlights only one: Waterford. Since 2000, the Irish brand of lead crystal has manufactured the 2,688 glass triangles that, once screwed into place, complete the famous Times Square ball (actually a geodesic sphere.)
That coveted job arguably makes Waterford—makers of fine stemware since 1783—the most visible brand on planet earth, at least for the last few moments of every year, when all eyes are trained on that big ball.
"We love what we do," said Tom Brennan, master artisan for Waterford. "And we love the fact that a billion people around the world are watching."
Brennan was speaking with reporters on the 21st floor of One Times Square on Tuesday morning, a few minutes before Waterford debuted its latest ball, which was waiting up on the roof. As it turns out, sponsoring the New Year's ball isn't just a coveted marketing opportunity, it's also a challenging one. After all, Waterford's name appears nowhere on the ball itself, and no viewers (either on TV or 470 feet below in Times Square) will get close enough to admire the detail on the glass, either. "Unless you have the Hubble telescope," Brennan joked, "you won't see the crystal from the street." Waterford's challenge, then, is to find ways to keep the idea fresh.
To this end, the company switches out 288 of the ball's triangles each year, creating each new set according to a theme. This year, it's "The Gift of Kindness." Each of the lead-crystal triangles bears an etched motif of olives, diamonds and rosettes.
In turn, that theme finds its way onto a literal gift collection—snow globes, tree ornaments, champagne flutes—for sale to the public. As Brennan explains, it's a way to scale down a larger-than-life marketing idea to the size of everyday retail. "There's something for everyone," he said, "—and for as little as $50."
There's also the name. The ball in question isn't just the New Year's ball—it's the Waterford Crystal New Year's Eve Ball, thank you very much. And while few people will bother with that long name in conversation, they'll hear the ball announced that way during live coverage of the event. And once they're dazzled by the effect of 32,256 Phillips Luxeon LEDs flashing behind all of that etched crystal, they'll hopefully come away with a favorable impression of Waterford. The ball is capable of 16 million light combinations and, thanks to the refracting qualities of the crystals, the effect verges on the supernatural.
It wasn't always this way. The first New Year's ball, which dropped in 1907, was made of iron and wood ribs studded with 25-watt light bulbs. Despite periodic upgrades, it wasn't until 1995 that the ball's designers achieved a shimmering effect—initially with the addition of rhinestones and strobe lights. Starting with the new millennium, LED technology opened the door to virtually limitless effects and, with the addition of Waterford's crystal, the famous ball became the effulgent icon it is today. (Not to be outdone, Swarovski crystal makes the 550-pound star that sits atop the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree a few blocks away.)
Meanwhile, up on the roof of One Times Square, a chilly wind whips down Broadway and maintenance men gingerly screw Waterford's newest triangular panels onto the ball's aluminum frame. With the LEDs powered down, there's no light passing through the crystal and not much to marvel at. Still, the ball is gargantuan. Electrical cables thick as garden hoses snake from its base, and with thick slabs of lead crystal covering every inch of this 12-foot sphere, it's a good bet this thing is no fun to lift.
Fortunately for Waterford, the actual work of lowering the 11,875-pound ball (which, until motorized winches took over two decades ago, was actually done by hand) falls to mechanical engineers, while a computer timer makes sure the ball arrives at the bottom of the pole at midnight. Still, with his company name literally riding down a flagpole in front of one-seventh of the world's population, does Brennan worry about something going wrong?
"No," he says with a smile. "I just make sure that I have a Waterford champagne flute in my hand."