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The Tupperware brand is said to be in a bad state. Is this because Tupperware parties are old-fashioned and the concept of direct sales has outlived its usefulness in times of digitalisation? How can distribution channels shape a brand – and perhaps even make it successful?

The job as a “Tupperlady” helped women in the 1950s to gain recognition and earn their own money – with the opportunity to combine childcare and household chores at the same time, © Tuppeware

By Thomas Wagner

A few days ago, the business press reported that Tupperware was “in bad shape” and that the brand might be “on the brink of extinction”. When asked where the reasons for this were to be found, two answers were quickly found: Corona and Tupperware-Parties. During the pandemic, sales had plummeted – and anyway, the time of direct living room sales was over. Everything else is pure nostalgia.

If the Mountain Won’t Come to Mohammed…

The case gives reason to think about old and new distribution channels, brand management, customer loyalty, the change of marketing strategies and some more: Direct, in retail or online? Exclusive or not? The fact that distribution can shape a brand to a great extent remains a momentous fact even in times of digitalisation. Bringing products to the customer without detours works according to the principle: If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain. If you don’t know a product, you can’t buy it. The pragmatic and ideology-free flexibility alone, which the proverb advocates, is by no means everything, however, as the Tupperware case shows – and other examples confirm.

But let’s stay with Tupperware first: more than 70 years ago, Brownie Wise developed the Tupperware party as a sales strategy and direct sales in the living room – and thus turned many women into “Tupperladies” and successful, self-confident small entrepreneurs. Until then, Earl Silas Tupper, who, after experimenting with polyethylene, had founded his company “Tupper Plastics Company” in 1939, had not been particularly successful with marketing. Until 1951, the cups and sealable storage containers often remained on shop shelves. The material was new and unfamiliar, and customers simply didn’t know what to do with the bowls and jars. The special feature was the closure, in which the air escaped from the box or bowl with the “Tupperware burp”, thus sealing the contents airtight and watertight.

Making Innovation Tangible

The history of many inventions teaches us that having a new and high-quality product is often not enough to be innovative, i.e. to be successful on the market. Brownie Wise, a single mother who earned her money selling household goods, had the all-important idea of demonstrating the function of plastic boxes and their usefulness to customers where they were needed: in their own homes. The Tupperware party was born. But you have to know: We are talking about the 1950s and conservative middle-class America. Since the parties took place in women’s living rooms, their husbands saw no threat in them. The job was compatible with childcare and household chores, and it was also financially attractive. The advisors earned money with every sale, which helped women without education to gain recognition and their own money and success bonuses. It worked – and in 1954 Brownie Wise was the first woman to grace the cover of the business magazine “Business Week”. Nevertheless, Earl Tupper fired his brilliant marketing manager in 1958 and sold his company a little later – not without first having the successful saleswoman removed from the company chronicle. In 1984, Earl Tupper had died a year earlier, and the patent for his product expired.

Demonstrating what the ”Kobold” Can Do

Pioneer in direct sales: The Vorwerk company with its “Kobold”, © Kobold

To cut a long story short: The Tupperware brand won over its customers through the direct brand experience and the quality of the product, and less through the price. In addition, the Tupperware party met a real social need in several respects. It offered women the opportunity to feel less isolated, to meet like-minded people in a nice atmosphere, opened up career opportunities and boosted self-confidence. For many today, this sounds like a conservative image of women that has long been overcome. But not only in this respect, and not only for women, times have changed.

One of the pioneers in direct sales was the Vorwerk company with its Kobold hoover. The “first hand hoover” came onto the market in 1930; and even the payment model via the electricity companies was new. Quality and price had to be right, especially as many had to think carefully about what they were spending their little money on. (At Vorwerk, the days are long gone when the federal champion Mr Edelmann sold 4800 imps. The company has been investing in building up a classic sales structure for a long time and has been able to continue its success with the Thermomix).

The Current Version of the Home Visit Is the Newsletter

With a few exceptions (like the Avon Beauty advisor), e-commerce has displaced direct sales. Flagship stores play an important role in customer loyalty. The current variant of the house visit is the product newsletter; and instead of a party, there is the community on the web. A simulated personal approach is supposed to convey the stories that the representative used to tell in the kitchen or living room – and thus convey the brand experience. Loriot, with the incorruptible eye of the humourist, has shown how such a very personal sales talk can run and end: At Mrs. Hoppenstedt’s home, bottle after bottle of “Pallhuber und Söhne” is uncorked and then – the drying bonnet of the “Kobold” was the inspiration – “Heinzelmann sucks and blows where mummy can otherwise only suck …”).

Opportunities Beyond the Mainstream

It remains to be said: Neither the concept of direct sales nor the home party alone are responsible for Tupperware’s decline. There would have been many opportunities for transformation for the company – from new, recyclable materials to systems for sustainable deposit containers. Beyond its specifics, however, the case also teaches: innovations that are not immediately comprehensible still need to be expertly explained and demonstrated. If the demands on ecology and sustainability increase, the competence of advisors is definitely in demand again. (Non-existent or poorly trained professionals are difficult to replace with online services or chat bots). Perhaps it is time for sales and service design in some sectors to leave the well-trodden (digital) paths on which the big herd moves. SAs long as the marketing is successful and the touchpoints work, many see no reason to rethink existing structures. Even if the social isolation (made visible by Corona) progresses, what counts is the turnover. When brands talk so much about “purpose”, shouldn’t we also think about social competence and social capital? Should we operate less with prejudices (direct sales = personnel-intensive, expensive and outdated = out) and recognise the opportunities of sales concepts that promote social processes and ties instead of relying solely on technical tools that are remote from the customer? Not that sales, out of sheer efficiency, ends up selling customers online and by means of AI.

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