They Broke It!

This article is two fold as I am going to attach Seth Godin’s blog post today as it relates to one of his books—of which I read “Meatball Sundae”—and Wedgewood China, which he also wrote about in the book and was featured in an article in the New York Times January 9, 09.

I was particularly touched as my parents fine china was made by Wedgewood. During my childhood years my parents in the world of academia entertained regularly and used their china! The parties were legendary in the town of Guelph and are still talked about today by those that are still around to reminisce. We of course as children rarely had the pleasure of using that china but it did get used regularly and now awaits a new generation (us) to use that very china that will no longer be in production. It is a great story with a great history. I do hope that as they move into bankruptcy protection that they find an investor or devise a restructuring plan that will allow this historic company to continue. See Seth’s post below.

The man who invented marketing
This year is the 200th birthday of the grandson of Josiah Wedgwood. That’s the good news. The bad news is that his company has filed for bankruptcy. It’s sad.

When I first wrote about Wedgwood in Meatball Sundae, I was stunned that one man could have created so many innovations so long ago. The Times piece repeats much of what I wrote, but doesn’t go far enough. I hope you’ll check out the book if you haven’t had a chance.

Marketing is being reinvented, and the difference this time is that you have far more resources, that will pay off far more quickly, than Wedgwood ever did. And who knows what your granddaughter will do with your inheritance?

Article from the New York Times Op Ed Contributor Judith Flanders ,to which I shared the title of this post. They Broke It!
THE crystal and ceramics company Waterford Wedgwood, whose roots go back 250 years, has been placed in administration, or what is called bankruptcy protection in the United States. While high manufacturing costs, declining demand for luxury goods and a weak dollar may have precipitated matters, this is not a credit-crunch story — it is a history lesson.

The company is in trouble because it has long forgotten the lessons of one of its founders: Josiah Wedgwood, among the greatest and most innovative retailers the world has ever seen. If the modern operators of Wedgwood, which was merged with Waterford Glass in 1986, had shown a tenth of Josiah’s intuitive grasp, his flair, his zest for selling, it would not now be dying.

Today when most people think of Wedgwood, they think of bridal registries and those dusty-looking blue-and-white jasperware plates that no one knows what to do with. But things were once very different.

Josiah was an unlikely hero. He was the 13th child of an impoverished potter; a childhood case of smallpox left Josiah with a bad leg that was later amputated, making it impossible for him to turn a potter’s wheel. But if he could not physically throw a pot, he could — and did — find new ways to get goods to market. He threw himself into various schemes to improve roads and canals. And, more fundamentally, he developed new ways of selling. Most, if not all, of the common techniques in 20th-century sales — direct mail, money-back guarantees, traveling salesmen, self-service, free delivery, buy one get one free, illustrated catalogues — came from Josiah Wedgwood.

First, of course, came the product. In 1759, Josiah set up a small company in Stoke-on-Trent, in west-central England, to produce earthenware, a cheap, everyday material that was dull, porous and broke easily. But by the 1760s, he made a technical breakthrough and produced “creamware,” a rich, creamy-looking glazed pottery that looked like porcelain but was able to withstand temperature changes. Soon Josiah had even worked out how to print designs on it — all this, at a relatively inexpensive price.

Its worth was quickly recognized: in 1765, Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, ordered a creamware tea set. For most people, that would be the pinnacle; for Josiah, it was the start. He now called himself “Potter to Her Majesty” and renamed creamware “Queen’s Ware.” In a letter to his business partner, he marveled at “how rapidly the use of it has spread” and “how universally it is liked,” and tried to balance how much this had to do with its royal “introduction” versus “its utility and beauty.”

That is the true Wedgwood. It wasn’t pleasure at past achievement, but instead determination to understand why success had come about, so he could build on it. Selling was an intellectual pleasure, an art form.

No fad was too small. In 1772, when women started bleaching their hands with arsenic to make their skin a fashionable porcelain tone, Wedgwood immediately advertised black teapots: against this background, hands looked even whiter. No cause was too great, either: the company produced emancipation medallions asking, “Am I not a man and a brother?” that were worn as buttons and bracelets.

Until Wedgwood came along, most companies had seen royal commissions as nothing but grief: they were one-offs and, therefore, profits were negligible. When Catherine the Great ordered a 925-piece dinner service in 1773, Wedgwood made perhaps £200 on an outlay of nearly £3,000. But as a marketing tool, the set was beyond price. Each piece had an image of a stately home, and before the order was dispatched, Josiah exhibited it in his showroom so that visitors could see whose houses were immortalized. Naturally, duplicate pieces were available for purchase.

Today, in the Waterford Wedgwood showroom here on Piccadilly the various lines of china are piled up bargain-basement style. While the product is still good, the marketing is dreadful. The company has been both profligate and miserly — it has hired hot designers, but then has scrimped by not spending money to change the molds; as a result, contemporary design is crudely imposed on 100-year-old shapes. Indeed, the company has returned to Josiah’s “diffusion” principle — offering cheaper lines for different segments of the population — but has failed to advertise this fact.

As the news of the company’s travails broke this week, it was clear from Web chatter that most people think Wedgwood is a “luxury” and a “traditional” brand, with no inexpensive lines or innovative designers. Neither is true, but perception, as Josiah knew, is the ultimate truth. Twenty-first century Wedgwood has been more old-fashioned than 18th-century Wedgwood, and that has been its undoing.

Judith Flanders is the author of “Inside the Victorian Home.”

Best Nicole


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