“How does he do it?”
“My dear boy, do you ask a fish how it swims?”
“Or a bird how it flies?”
“No siree you don’t. They do it because they were born to do it. Just like Willy Wonka was born to be a candy man…”
Willy Wonka is the ultimate fictional marketing legend. Not only did he create one of the world’s most coveted brands, he went on to cement his success with arguably the first worldwide viral marketing campaign. Having one of the most popular consumer products – confectionery – no doubt helped a lot, but what did he actively do to make his business a success? More importantly, how can you adopt the methods used by a fictitious chocolate factory owner to make your own business a success?
(Interestingly, the 1971 Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory film was a real-world marketing campaign in itself; the Wolper persuaded a Quaker Oats subsidiary company to buy the book rights and finance the film to promote the new Quaker Oats Wonka Bar (source) , despite the fact that they had no experience of the film industry. Furthermore, when Nestlé bought the renamed Wonka candy company, they also sold products directly inspired by the film/book, such as Everlasting Gobstoppers (source)).
1. Strength of product and unique selling points
Willy Wonka has a very clear marketing strategy based on offering excellent products. They are widely known to be the best (and are even an aspiration for the less affluent figures in society, such as Charlie Bucket). It’s a widely quoted statement that to succeed in business, you should “be the cheapest or be the best”.
Every decision Willy Wonka makes shows he’s entirely focused around being the best. Even where he recognises a need for cheaper products, he adapts to demand in a way that doesn’t compromise on his brand; for example, he creates high-quality Everlasting Gobstoppers specifically “for children with very little pocket money”.
Competition: The very reason he shut himself away was because competitors kept stealing his recipes, which in itself implied superiority of product. His competitors looked to him to lead the way and see what they could copy, which simply served to highlight him as the clear market leader. His actions serve to separate himself further from his competitors in a positive way. Instead of comparing yourself to competitors (especially publicly), focus on what you can do better for sustainable and more profitable gains in the long term. Ultimately, his business and marketing are so successful because he does the things that his competitors don’t.
Confidence: At the beginning of the 1971 film, the backdrop to the sweet shop owner’s ‘The Candy Man Can’ song sees him literally throwing sweets to the children and giving away all kinds of samples of Willy Wonka’s confectionery. Free samples demonstrate confidence in a product or service, and also open up the potential for communication and feedback. The added benefit is that you also create a feel-good perception of being a generous brand. Mimic this for your own business by offering a free trial, a free website analysis, or even free physical goodies to show people that they can’t live without you.
Confirmation: Willy Wonka consistently confirms the perceptions he’s created with actions to support them. His actions and products confirm his branding and marketing messages, leading to customer trust and respect. Despite creating an empire based around the idea of innovation and unpredictability, Willy Wonka is in fact very consistent when it comes to his core business actions and branding. The big takeaway here is making sure you balance novelty and creativity with business needs and customer expectations to be interesting but practical.
2. Thoughtful and consistent branding
Throughout the films and books, Willy Wonka’s marketing seems effortless, almost invisible. Everyone seems to accept that it’s the quality of and love for his products that are responsible for his success. As important as these things are, they’re only ever part of the formula for his success. Other factors include:
The figurehead: The Wonka brand has two story elements in its favour: the man behind the chocolate, and the story behind the man. The most successful brands are often associated with a particular figure (such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.). Wonka deliberately recreates himself as a man of mystery, and does the same for his factory and workers, making himself indistinguishable from the brand. This creates an ongoing talking point; one of the film’s integral lines is “Nobody ever goes in, nobody ever comes out.” A brand figurehead should have a clear identity and consistency, whether that’s a person of power, intelligence, mystery, or anything else. Their role is to add an element of personality to the company and to be the person that represents the business, so it’s vital to get it right and ensure you’re presenting someone who is appealing to your customer base.
The stories: There are elements of story throughout the Willy Wonka brand: the golden tickets in themselves are a great device, as is the backstory of the Oompa Loompas being rescued from harm by Willy Wonka. Willy Wonka closing the factory away from public sight and relaunching his chocolate brand are also elements that help build up a picture of the kinds of things the company does and what it stands for. He has an exceptionally strong customer base, and a lot of the reason for that is that people aren’t just interested in the products: they’ve bought into the whole story. As well as talking about the origins of your business and where it’s come from, it’s important to keep the story going. Aim to always be doing something that gets people talking, and don’t forget about elements outside your direct business, such as charity fundraising and community help.
Social proof: It’s not just what Wonka presents in his marketing. His success is significantly reliant on advocates and influencers. Every single character, whether they’re a small German child or an industrial American millionaire, fundamentally believes that Wonka is the best confectionery company in existence. The more people who buy into your marketing, the more people you’ll attract through social proof and the halo effect…described in the films as ‘Wonkamania’.
3. The importance of not doing it alone
In both book and films, Willy Wonka is famed for being a recluse. However, he recognises just how important people are. The difference is that he’s very careful to select the right kind of people.
The first factor here is one of Steve Job-esque control. Willy Wonka has everything the way he wants it, because he – and everyone else – believes he knows what works. He keeps a close eye on everything that’s produced and how it’s produced. This has to be balanced with the amount of work needed however, which is why his strategy is focused around delegating to the Oompa Loompas. In the 1971 film, he stages a fake competitor – Slugworth – to test the children’s honesty. The children are tested at every stage of the factory tour, largely in terms of their actions and responses to what they’re presented with. Willy Wonka is very conscious of his approach when it comes to people and is very clear on what he wants and expects, enabling him to strike a balance between having the right type and number of staff whilst limiting distractions, as well as offering a consistent working environment.
However, despite Willy Wonka’s natural instinct to control, he recognises that he can’t do all the marketing himself either. The candy shop owner is presented as a natural salesman and has a mutually beneficial relationship with the Wonka brand. Both at the beginning of the original film and when Charlie later goes in to buy chocolate, the shop owner demonstrates his in-depth knowledge of Wonka products. He knows what to recommend to Charlie and how, advising him specifically on what’s popular, and at the beginning of the film drums up excitement with the customers by exclaiming “Wonka’s got a new one!” Utilise your contacts carefully. If you have a web business, perhaps you have a contact in print whose services you can recommend, and vice versa. The important thing here is that the relationship should be as mutual and well-matched as possible; you don’t want one side to gain all the benefits or become a drain.
4. “If it ain’t broke, still fix it”
Whilst Willy Wonka’s competitors were focused on what he was doing and trying to maintain their own positions, he was focusing on making an incredible success story even better.
There was never a point where he was stagnant or reached a point where he considered everything to be ‘good enough’. Even when the Wonka brand was globally established as the best, he was self-motivated enough to want it to be even better. Again, this fits with the overall Wonka vision, a company built and maintained on being different to everyone else. This works so well because Willy Wonka has created a brand that is naturally so close to who he is and how he sees the world, so it’s easy for him to consistently maintain this perception.
As the children tour his factory, they’re introduced to familiar favourites as well as brand new products in the testing stages (resulting in the demise of Violet Beauregarde). Wonka is constantly developing new things and isn’t afraid to admit when they’re failures, not quite right, or when it’s time to move on to something else. He takes educated and intelligent risks, and doesn’t expect things to be right first time. In many ways this is similar to Google’s approach of creating new tools, products and services: many of their projects are created out of genuine interest rather than aiming for longevity. Creative unpredictability is exactly what sets Willy Wonka apart from his competitors and allows him enough time and energy to focus on what he’s interested in.
This idea is extended further with the golden ticket campaign, the premise of the whole story. The contest is billed as a chance to win a tour of the secret factory and a lifetime’s supply of chocolate, both things that were inexpensive for Wonka to provide but very desirable. Even on a small scale, competitions can provide a lucrative return on interest: if you’re on a budget, be creative with your prizes and don’t underestimate what people covet. Even an hour of your time is a must-have prize presented in the right way to the right market.
The end result
Although Willy Wonka’s only possible outcome is success thanks to the happy ending ideal of children’s fiction, he and his business are more complex than they first appear, and combine realism and idealism in a way that is believable. There are more clever marketing efforts at work than the overall picture implies though, which makes him an excellent case study. Despite being part of a children’s story, there are lots of good takeaways from Willy Wonka and his fantastical business empire that can be applied to any business anywhere.
The next part in our fictional marketing geniuses series looks at how The Lego Movie’s President Business built his cult, so check back soon for more business tips!