January 10, 2009

Wedgwood Editorial in the NYT

There was an excellent editorial in the New York Times today about the Wedgwood bankrputcy. One of the main points was something I said the other day: If the current company used the sales and other innovative techniques that Josiah Wedgwood developed, they wouldn't be in trouble today. They simply have not kept up with the times.
Here's the article in full:

They Broke It
By Judith Flanders
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.”


  1. Really interesting article. Thanks for posting it.

  2. Interesting and so sad... Wedgewood has a great history and many beautiful collections.

    Thanks for posting.

  3. Absolutely true ... marketing folks haven't the faintest idea of what to do with their products ... so often, they have no verve, no pizzazz, and little real deep knowledge of the products they are flogging ...

  4. Very interesting. After your post on Royal Copenhagen, I googled a group of these traditional china companies. And Wedgewood had a very dowdy site, I thought. Their cheaper lines looked it. RC on the other hand took the high road even in their new lines. No idea if they're making money, but at least I wanted it after looking at the webpage.

  5. Sad. As a child we ate off a Wedgwood service that had been given to my financially struggling parents from an aunt. the intricate pattern is among my earliest memories - although we didn't really value it, not knowing what it was.

  6. Gosh, I just spent almost a half hour scrolling through patterns at Replacements.com because I had to find that pattern! It was Somerset. ;-)

  7. I must say as a native Stoke person living just 5 minutes drive from the Barlaston site it is sad situation for many people in this area. But I think it is cheap foreign imports at knock down prices that have put the nail in the coffin of our local industry.


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