Carol Gardner Fights The Blues With Wit
And An English Bull Dog
By Robert Frankel
Carol Gardner knows what it’s like to have a bad year. At age 52, she found herself divorced, depressed, and about $1.5 million in debt.
“I thought I knew where I was going the rest of my life,” Gardner said. “And then, all of a sudden, things changed.”
But she did not stay down for very long.
“A light bulb went on in my head,” Gardner said. “I’d always wanted an English bulldog. They look like funny people, and they make you laugh. I thought, ‘A bulldog is what you need. An English bulldog.’”
She found a four month-old pup in the classified, and it was love at first sight. Gardner brought the pup home, named her Zelda, and got on with trying to rebuild their lives.
But she still faced some financial struggles. When she heard about a local pet store’s Christmas card contest — with the winner receiving 40 pounds of dog food, every month for a year, for free — Gardner put Zelda in a bathtub, gave the dog a Santa hat and a Claus-like bubble beard, and took a picture. She put the photo on the front of a card, and wrote on the inside, “For Christmas I got a dog for my husband. Good trade, huh?”
Gardner won the contest — and had taken her first step in the creation of Zelda Wisdom, a multimillion-dollar merchandising empire.
Perhaps you’ve seen the cards: Zelda, pudgy and wrinkly, dressed as a little league coach, an angel, or a punk, with a witticism attached.
Their success has come at lightning speed. Early in 2002, The New York Times reported that Zelda items were nearing $50 million in sales. Gardner said that in 2006, Zelda cards were the best-selling line from Hallmark.
Gardner attributes much of her personal success to a formula she has followed since her days as a young creative director working in advertising. She believes a successful product has three inalienable characteristics.
The Zelda cards are “daring, different, and smart,” she said. “Nobody had ever done this type of image before, [this kind of]attitude with a bit of rough-hewn humor.”
Her team was as daring, different, and smart as the cards. Even as Gardner’s money was dwindling, Zelda Wisdom team members tested the cards’ sales potential in Oregon and Washington State. They worked Zelda cards into local newspapers and television shows. The cards sold out; Zelda was licensed to a greeting card company, and even started appearing in her own line of books.
But Zelda Wisdom kept growing. Gardner and her team discovered that Diane Sawyer, then the host of CBS’s “Good Morning, America,” was not a morning person. So they sent Sawyer a greeting card of Zelda dressed in a gown and a nightcap, with a sentence that read, “I’m a morning person… at noon.”
When Sawyer saw the card, she called to say she wanted Zelda on the show. Suddenly, Zelda was a national figure. In the time since, she has appeared on calendars, magnets, clothing, cookie jars, and even snow globes.
“It happened so fast,” Gardner said of Zelda Wisdom’s success.
Gardner said one of the most rewarding elements of Zelda’s popularity is how relatable she is to people all over the world. To this day, Gardner still receives e-mails telling her how Zelda brightened someone’s day.
“I always say there’s a little bit of Zelda in all of us,” Gardner said. “People look at the dog and say, ‘That’s me.’”
Gardner’s work with rescue organizations complements this sensibility. She adopted Otis, a rescued bulldog who, despite having suffered from abuse, was “the sweetest dog you can imagine,” and who ultimately became “Zelda’s boyfriend.”
She and Otis visited a home for abused teenage boys, where he was received with zeal.
In addition to this outreach, and with Zelda Wisdom going strong, Gardner has decided she’s not yet finished adding to her own story.
She gives speeches, leveraging her background in advertising to help entrepreneurs launch their own ideas. But her advice for entrepreneurs is as relevant not only for people who want to reinvent themselves, but also those, like her, who are forced to reinvent themselves.
“I tell people to sit down, get a piece of paper, and write down everything they love to do,” she said. “Keep it in a pocket or a purse, and keep adding to it. On the flip side, write down what you don’t like.”
She aims to encourage people to ask themselves how they can harness their passions, and turn them into something that is daring, different, and smart. Writing down the dislikes is a way to protect people from making a choice or decision they may regret.
Gardner is also one of the partners of TreeFort Ventures, an organization that helps young businesses prepare for investors, and more mature companies further grow and develop. Gardner works to connect businesses with media outlets, financing opportunities, and potential sales interests.
Rest assured, however, that Gardner still sets aside plenty of time for Zelda — who, by Gardner’s own admission, is quite the pampered pooch.
“This is the most spoiled dog,” she said. In addition to “a wardrobe that would make most people envious,” Zelda also enjoys a raw meat diet. Gardner credits this in preventing Zelda’s seasonal alopecia (a condition common among bulldogs that results in bald spots), which has not returned in almost two years.
And Zelda herself still has plenty of time to be the wrinkly ray of sunshine in your day. With Zelda Wisdom already preparing its 2019 calendar, Zelda, and her owner’s daring, different, and smart idea, will accompany us through the years to come.