This week brought the unfortunate news that film legend Gene Wilder had passed away at age 83. He was famous across the globe for roles in Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Producers, and many more; but perhaps his most iconic role was that of Willy Wonka. No matter what year you were born in, the story of Charlie and his march through the Chocolate Factory has likely been a part of your life in some way.
At its core, Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is a story about love, honesty, and in the case of the titular character, taking the road less traveled. However, it also served another purpose, perhaps unintentionally. Throughout the film (and of course the book) Willy Wonka provides us with valuable business lessons. Some are better than others, with a couple serving as “what not to do” examples, but nonetheless, there is real advice within the film that can be utilized today.
1. Be creative with your marketing promotions
The initial catalyst for the story was the creation of a promotion. By initiating the “golden ticket” program, Wonka immediately created a frenzy for his products. With the promise of free chocolate for life, who wouldn’t run over to their closest corner store in order to secure as many Wonka products as possible? He created his own lottery, and his company undoubtedly saw a spike in revenue as a result.
McDonald’s has experienced similar success with their Monopoly promotion. Every October, their products come with tear off Monopoly pieces that carry prizes of different values. Some properties offer free food, while the more valuable pieces offer vacation packages, cars, and cold hard cash. Although they’ve been running this promotion for nearly 30 years, they still experience a significant sales spike every October.
In 2011, sales increased by “6.1% in the Asia and Pacific region, 5.2% in the U.S. and 4.8% in Europe,” during the month of the promotion. More recently, in 2013, “the Monopoly Promotion increased its third quarter profit of that year by 5%” across the board.
Domino’s is another great example of a company using a creative marketing campaign. After years of complaints about their main product, pizza, Domino’s finally listened, and committed themselves to change. Not only did they start the process of rebuilding their product, but they fully admitted, loudly and clearly that the previous iterations of their pizza weren’t good.
As a result of the campaign, “the chain’s sales grew 14.5 percent to $362 million in Q2 2010, and up 16.5 percent for the first six months of the year — the period in which the campaign was launched. It’s a testament to a notion that’s not often honored in brand management: honesty is the best policy.”
Of course, now that their product is in fact better, they’ve had to figure out a new campaign to run, but that’s what we call a good problem.
2. Don’t rehash the same products, innovate!
The key to Willy Wonka’s success (other than his fantastic name) was that he differentiated himself from the competition. Instead of just producing the same types of sweets as everyone else, which would have further saturated the market with similar goods, he created Everlasting Gobstoppers, Fizzy Lifting Drinks, and Golden Chocolate Eggs laid by geese. Wonka curated a “sweet experience” with his goods, rather than simply copying what already existed.
Most companies like to tell themselves that their products are differentiated from the competition, but often this is wishful thinking at best. That’s one reason why true differentiation stands out so boldly. When Apple was releasing the first iPod’s and iPhones, they were seen as one of the most exciting companies in the world. They were making products that nobody else had, which caused other companies to react to their innovations.
Just recently, we’ve seen Elon Musk disturb the automotive industry with Tesla, and the space industry with SpaceX. Rather than creating another unfathomably fast car, Musk and his team built the world’s fastest production car, that just so happens to be powered by a battery. Instead of simply building private rockets that could compete with Nasa, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin, Musk and his team have developed re-usable rockets that can land themselves on autonomous drone ships. In each of Musk’s companies, he isn’t recycling ideas that have come before him, but rather, he’s re-defining them.
3. Have a succession plan
Wonka did technically have a succession plan, but for all intents and purposes, it was terrible. The story of Charlie making his way from a poor and underprivileged youth, all the way to owner of the Chocolate Factory is a fantastic story, but in the real world, this would be one of the most misguided business decisions in recorded history.
Imagine if Steve Jobs had organized a tour of Apple’s headquarters for five kids, and at the end of the tour, chosen one of them to run the company. It would have been absolute chaos. Stock prices would have plummeted, the board of directors would have rioted, and the end result would have been disastrous. While that would never happen in a million years, that’s exactly what took place in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.
Rather than installing someone with ample knowledge of the factory, its processes, and its employees, Wonka chose a replacement with absolutely no experience in any of the above. It’s great that Charlie is an honest kid, and perhaps with the right training and guidance he could step into the role that Wonka left him, but there’s absolutely no chance he could effectively run the company.
The entire plot is strikingly similar to an oft-forgotten scene in The Office, where Michael Scott wonders what the United States would be like with a baby in charge.
“If a baby were president, there would be no taxes, there would be no war. There would be no… government, and… things could get terrible. It actually, probably it would be a better…screenplay idea than a serious suggestion.”
4. Create a lasting image
This tip isn’t as much about Willy Wonka as it is about Gene Wilder. As a 25-year old writing this article, I can confidently say that without a doubt, Wilder is and always will be Willy Wonka. He might not have made chocolate or the incredible candies that were featured in the movie, but by immersing himself in the role, he became the character who will be forever showcased on our screens.
Even though the movie came out more than 45 years ago, kids would still “smile or call out…’there’s Willy Wonka'” when they saw Wilder in public. That role, and the movie have both had incredible staying power. No matter how long its been since you’ve seen the it, you can probably still remember more than a few scenes, or even some direct quotes. To create an image that connects to the core of consumers, and more broadly, human beings, is something that we should all strive to do; and Wilder’s portrayal of Willy Wonka was a shining example of how to do it best. He’ll be sorely missed, but thanks to modern technology, when we feel down, or lost, we can always turn to Willy Wonka and find ourselves “in a world of pure imagination.”
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