• John Bessant

Partying with innovation

There haven’t been many winners during the Covid-19 pandemic.  Businesses, particularly in travel and entertainment have been hit hard.  But there are a few places where the news is better; we’d expect media companies and online retailers to do well but might be surprised to see the housewares company ‘Tupperware’ in amongst them.  Yet 2020 has been a good year; from a long period in the doldrums its sales (close to $0.5bn) are up 14% and profits have increased fourfold.  Not bad for a product whose debut was less than glamorous – the original US patent described ‘an open mouth container and a non-snap closure therefor’.  But if you want to store food, keep it fresh and safe, then Tupperware does the job pretty well.

The man who gave the product its name – Earl Tupper  – was a gifted chemist who grew up in a poor family in Massachusetts.  He’d made a childhood vow to make a million dollars by the time he was thirty but hadn’t succeeded, despite having invented a wide range of ‘interesting’ products including a fish-powered boat and no-drip ice cream cone.  He worked in many different jobs, from salesman to tree surgeon  but the need to support his wife and family eventually led him to work for the industrial chemical giant, DuPont, in their plastics division.  His time there gave him new insights into both the underlying science and the manufacturing challenges of polymers and he left to set up his own business in 1938, working first as a sub-contractor to DuPont.

During the Second World War his company grew, making military accessories including parts for Jeeps and gas-masks; when hostilities ceased he saw an opportunity in using government surplus materials.  Specifically he got hold of a load of polypropylene slag, waste material from oil refining but rich in plastic raw material (albeit in unappetising shades of black).  His chemistry background paid off; after months of experiments he managed to transmute this base material into a lightweight plastic which was unbreakable.  Having made ‘Poly-T’ (as he dubbed it) he looked around to find ways of deploying it, coming up, amongst other things, with a food container which he could make in fresh bright colours.  More important, he took inspiration from the way paint tins are sealed to develop a snap-on lid which gave an excellent seal.  He registered his patent in 1947 (awarded in 1949), launched a range of 14 products – and failed to grow any kind of market. Not entirely surprising since plastics were still in their infancy as consumer products; people associated the material with being brittle, greasy to the touch and smelly.

What he was offering was a good product with a potentially big relative advantage – an alternative to tin foil as a way of storing and keeping food fresh.  He’d  tried to deal with the issues the market was concerned about – his plastics were brightly coloured, odourless and soft to the touch – and priced reasonably.  Market testing suggested they ought to sell – people described them as “featherweight,” “pliable” and “modern.”  A feature in the influential ‘House Beautiful’ magazine even called the Tupperware range “fine art for 39 cents.”

 ‘A good idea speaks for itself’’?  Not this one, it seems.   It was at best murmuring quietly in the corner.  His problem wasn’t the product – it was the perception of it.  He couldn’t seem to crack the market challenge – it sold but not in great numbers.  The age-old innovation problem of moving to scale.  His challenge was one of moving from evidence to adoption – crossing a very particular (but common) kind of chasm.

He had a few clues about what was needed to build the bridge.  The sheer novelty of plastics in the home meant that people were cautious about adopting a whole new category of products – not just his.  And the clever seal was not intuitive – it needed a ‘burping’ action to take effect – a simple enough technique but one which differed radically from the screw on lids on glass jars or the metal storage vessels which people currently used.

In another corner of the USA a possible solution was already in operation.  The Stanley Home Product Company distributed and sold brushes, cleaning materials and other household goods and in the process had evolved an interesting sales model.  They’d been experimenting with a novel approach; instead of selling door-to-door their salesmen had begun to organise parties and invite local housewives (their target market) to a social event; during the evening there’d be a demonstration of some of the products Stanley were trying to sell.  

The model built on the idea of creating a stage – a context in which the customers could be exposed to the product in an environment which was social, comfortable, safe and without pressure.  The sales pitch came alongside food, drink and conversation – and it was much harder to close the door on the salesperson.  It cleverly built on an existing social structure.  

What they had done was to stumble on a core theme in innovation adoption – homophily.  A simple but powerful principle; people are more likely to listen , be influenced by and even adopt something if the idea comes from ‘people like them’. 

Tupper could see the potential value in this approach –his long hard struggle through the jobs market had included a spell as a door-to-door salesman.  So he engaged the Stanley company to distribute his new Tupperware range and sales began to improve, though not at a spectacular rate.

Enter Brownie Mae Wise.  A single mother, she was working hard to try and make ends meet and worked (alongside her day job as a secretary) as a party demonstrator for Stanley Home Products.  She was good at it; her naturally friendly and enthusiastic personality meant that she quickly became one of the top Stanley sellers. She’d seen Tupperware products in department stores  (which was the main sales channel that Tupper was using at the time) and had an instinct for the potential value of the product.  So when Stanley added Tupperware to the range she was to demonstrate she was enthusiastic.

It was a big hit; the product with its bright colours and light weight was an interesting alternative to the brushes and mops usually on offer at a Stanley party.  It was also intriguing.  She developed some party tricks to draw attention to the features of the new product – like throwing a container full of liquid across the room where it landed, seal still intact and without splattering the walls.  And there was a certain kind of magic in the way the seal was closed by ‘burping’ the lid – something which not only drew attention but also got over one of the potential problems of perceived complexity in the product itself!

Brownie Wise wasn’t just a good salesperson – she was an innovator with a gift for what we might call ‘position innovation’.  Innovation not in the product or process but in the way it is sold – the story wrapped around it, the opening up of a new market by pioneering and improving sales techniques.  She’d guessed that the home party model was still in its infancy but offered plenty of potential; so in 1949 she left Stanley Home Products and set up her own business, PatioParties, selling, amongst other things, Tupperware.

She redesigned the core sales model; instead of sales reps hosting the parties she passed the role to housewives themselves who gave parties in their own homes.  Her ‘Poly-T’ parties were first and foremost that – parties at which other women could gather and eat, drink and relax.  Amongst the guests was a Tupperware representative who, as part of the evening’s entertainment, could demonstrate the various products on offer.  As a small thank-you the hostess of a party would receive some free Tupperware products; essentially planting visible seeds which could flourish in the following days as word spread around the neighbourhood.

The model gave the women who acted as hostess several incentives; they had social status not only for organising a party but also for being the source of information which others valued – in this case about a useful range of products which would make their lives easier.  And she would be rewarded, directly with a small gift of Tupperware merchandise but also with commission on the sales she was able to generate across her social networks. 

It worked; she drew an enthusiastic workforce towards her, first converting party hostesses to the wonder of Tupperware and then training them to be ‘missionaries’, demonstrators spreading the word to others. By October of 1949 she had 19 staff and had to move her stock of products to a warehouse because she’d run out of space at home.  She was selling more Tupperware in the Detroit region than most of the big department stores – and her success was rewarded when she was offered the sales rights for the entire state of Florida.  In the spring of 1950 the family moved south and she began creating her magic sales realm.

Not surprisingly this consistent improvement in sales caught the attention of Earl Tupper who invited her to this headquarters – and found a woman full of ideas (and not a little criticism) for his sales approach.  She told him that people wouldn’t buy his products from catalogues or pick it off shelves in stores.  Instead they needed to see it, feel it, even smell it.  They needed to be able to drop it and throw it across the room without the seal leaking.  They needed to enjoy the bright colours and the practical shapes.  And they needed to be reassured by having this experience in the company of a trusted friend or a neighbour. 

It was convincing enough to get him to withdraw from his current sales channels and instead to sell it exclusively using the home party approach.  In 1951 he appointed her Vice President for sales, running a new division called Tupperware Home Parties, Inc.  The move paid off; by 1952 sales had jumped to over $2m with the figures tripling in the final quarter of the year.

In her new role she could refine and extend the emerging model, building on principles which we’d recognise today as core features of ‘social marketing’.  She pioneered the incentive structure which has since become so familiar in such networks, offering an annual ‘Jubilee’ sales conference in Florida at which her women could enjoy a break while also celebrating sales successes.  The lucky winners who hit ambitious sales targets were rewarded with high value gifts like cars, speedboats, holiday trips and mink stoles; the 1954 budget for prizes alone was $75,000.  It became such a big event that Life magazine ran a feature and TV networks covered it.

This was more than a simple meeting; she instituted rituals and routines which made being part of the club something special; there were symbols (like the specially-designed Wishing Well where fledgling sellers would cast their wishes, costumed graduation ceremonies and treasure hunts with valuable prizes buried in the ground.  Over four days she created a sense of belonging to something special , a sub-culture.  And the community of practice she built helped diffuse tips and techniques for improving selling back in the field.  

Her motivation efforts weren’t confined to the sales conference; she also worked hard to codify and share the knowledge the team was accumulating.  She wrote a regular newsletter (Tupperware Sparks) with hints ,tips and advice, she produced a manual for new sellers (Tupperware Know-How) and – fifty years  before the YouTube phenomenon – made a 52 minute TV film (A Tupperware Home Party) as a training tool.

Her impact wasn’t just felt on sales figures for the company; she was also becoming a powerful role model for women of her time.  Her own story and the stories of her successful sales team showed that women could have at least a part-time career of their own , one which could sit alongside their role as home-makers.  She began to appear on radio and TV and in 1954 was featured as the first woman on the cover of Business Week magazine.

Everything seemed to be going like a fairy-tale and what happened next would fit well inside that framework.  Even as her success reached new heights the seeds of her downfall were beginning to sprout.  In the Business Week  article the story suggested that she was the centre stage figure responsible for the impressive $25m sales of the company, with Earl Tupper relegated to the sidelines.  He , not surprisingly perhaps, began to resent this  and his jealousy fuelled their often stormy arguments about the business strategy. 

Eventually matters came to a head and in 1958  he angrily dismissed her; cast out into exile with only the statutory minimum in severance pay. Perhaps more revealing was the fact that he ordered her name to be removed from all the company’s sales literature; it was as if she was being wiped out of the corporate memory as if she’d never existed.  He even buried the remaining 600 copies of her book in an unmarked patch of land close to the Florida headquarters of the company.

The crisis seemed to break his spirit; within a year he had sold the company (to a large conglomerate) and retired from business life.  For Brownie the story had a similarly unhappy ending; despite trying to re-create the magic sales model with her own party-plan cosmetics business she failed.  She died in relative obscurity in 1992.

Two things survive the story; the first is the Tupperware brand which has gone from strength to strength and still relies on the party plan social network model for much of its sales.  It is sold in over 100 countries around the world and estimates suggest a piece of Tupperware is sold somewhere every 2.5 seconds!

The second is the legacy of innovation lessons which can be drawn from the tale.  Woven into the rags-to-riches-to rags narrative are some powerful messages from which innovators looking to move to scale could learn. 

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