Recently, I attended a course on petrochemicals that looked at various building blocks that are used to make different types of consumer products that we use in our daily lives. During the course, one of the uses of polyethylene was discussed: the production of plastic bowls and containers. More specifically, Tupperware was used as an example of a household brand making products for preparation, storage, and serving products for the kitchen and home.
The example itself brought back memories of my childhood when I followed my mother to Tupperware parties, held at homes of her friends. I remember the excitement I felt when my mother attended such parties as it was also a chance for kids’ playtime. After all these years, I made the connection between those parties and how Tupperware gained its market position worldwide.
A passion for invention
Tupperware itself was first developed by Earl Silas Tupper in 1946. From a young age, he had developed a passion for invention. He had tried to invent and sell several of his inventions, which were however rejected. He ventured into landscaping and nursery business for a while; however that was forced into bankruptcy in the Great Depression. He finally joined DuPont to work in its plastics division. Despite working for DuPont, he remained optimistic about his ideas and ability to develop his own inventions.
Turning knowledge into products
After a year with DuPont learning plastics design and manufacturing, he left to form his own Earl S. Tupper Company, specializing in the design and engineering of industrial plastics products – e.g. military weapons, molding parts for gas masks and Navy signal lamps – mostly done under subcontract to DuPont. His inquiring mind further led him to mould and modify raw polyethylene slag he received from DuPont to make food containers. After much experimentation, Tupperware was born from user-friendly and light plastic that was flexible and odorless. In addition, inspired by a paint can, in 1945 he developed and patented the watertight and airtight Tupper seal, also known as the “burping seal”, which is a famous aspect of Tupperware that distinguishes it from competitors.
In 1946, merging both his inventions into one ‘wonderbowl’ in his factory in Massachusetts, Tupper nevertheless faced a marketing challenge. His advertising and marketing did not return instant success. Tupper had a clear challenge ahead of him.
Around the same period, Brownie Wise, a divorcee in Detroit, was hosting small parties to sell brushes and cleaning equipments (from Stanley Home Products) to help pay for her young son’s medical bills. She then stumbled across Tupper’s products. A self-taught saleswoman who never got past eighth grade growing up in rural Georgia, she had the charm and an intuitive gift for marketing and thus set about building a network of housewives dedicated to selling Tupperware from their homes.
The sudden surge in sales caught Tupper’s attention who met Wise in 1948 to discuss a new distribution plan.
Innovatively marketing an innovation
Wise argued that Tupper should not sell his products in stores, but at home parties. Her revolutionary thinking and ingenuity made him appoint her as his company’s vice president and head of sales, hence giving her the opportunity and freedom to transform his entire sales operation, Tupperware Home Parties Inc. She pioneered and developed a direct marketing sales strategy that accelerated growth of Tupper’s products through the exclusive and infamous Tupperware parties. For this, her sales force comprised of women who invited friends and neighbors to a combined social event and sales presentation. She worked hard to establish new distributorships in untapped areas of the country, write sales manual, create catchy and creative recruiting promotions to expand the company’s sales force, and award gifts and “Jubilees” to celebrate the success of top-selling and top-recruiting Tupperware ladies. Her methods and strategy were so successful that Tupperware became a household name, with sales soaring up to $100 million in late 1950s.
Making a meaningful impact
Tupper worked hard to invent and produce Tupperware in Massachusetts. Wise with her flamboyance, charisma and good-natured heart headed a sales force in Florida. He knew how to produce things, and she knew how to sell them. Together, they made a meaningful impact in the lives of women post World War II, who were conventionally tied at home. Many women were motivated to come together in their homes to sell Tupperware, and empowered by earning their own revenue, which was considered unrivaled and unprecedented back then.
Looking back, the Tupperware parties I attended with my mother as a child were mainly hosted and attended by housewives who looked to earn an extra living, whilst growing their entrepreneurial skills in a small town of East Coast Malaysia, where economic development was not thriving. The parties were almost 30 years after the ones pioneered by Wise. Although the growth of Tupperware in global markets in later decades was in the hands of others as described in the history of this household brand, one can only appreciate the initial efforts that were put in by Tupper and Wise. At present, Tupperware is sold in more than 100 countries, whilst Tupperware Jubilees are held every year on six continents. The hard work of Tupper and Wise is a good example of forging several attributes to bring innovation to the market – passion, drive, determination, charisma and thinking outside the box.
image credit: howstuffworks
Roobini Aruleswaran is a cultural explorer, an ardent traveller and an amateur writer who is learning to innovate in thinking. A Malaysian born Tamil, she grew up in Malaysia and she’s lived in France, India and Holland on international work assignments. She enjoys reading, Pilates, running in the woods and listening to music to recharge. Poetry writing is a relaxing and fascinating outlet to her thoughts and observations.