The forgotten father of modern marketing

February 3, 2019

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Sunday, February 3, 2019

The 18th-century potter who became the world’s first tycoon

Josiah Wedgwood has been cited as the father of modern marketing and the creator of the first luxury brand. Yet he’s been largely forgotten by time.

BY Zachary Crockett

The name “Josiah Wedgwood” doesn’t pique the interest of most tech bros.

He didn’t grace stages clad in a black turtleneck. He didn’t build a steel or railroad empire. He wasn’t the richest man of all time, or the most powerful. But nearly 300 years ago, in a small village in the English hills, he revolutionized the way the world thought about business and entrepreneurship — by making pottery.

Wedgewood has been called the “first tycoon,” the “Steve Jobs” of the 18th century, and “one of the most innovative retailers the world has ever seen.” Scholars regard him as both the father of modern marketing and the creator of the first luxury brand. 

In his quest to invent and sell ceramic wares, he pioneered sales techniques like money back guarantees, free delivery, and “influencer” marketing.

This is the story of a small-time potter from the middle of nowhere who turned a “rude uncultivated craft” into a thriving global industry.

A potter is born

Josiah was born on July 12, 1730, in Burslem, England, the 13th child of an impoverished and struggling potter.

In these times, pottery was seen as a crude, dirty, and “undignified” craft. Like most in the trade, Josiah’s father, Thomas, produced low-quality, cheap wares that were “black and mottled in color.” His work was a nothing more than a means of survival.

When Josiah was 9 years old, his father died, leaving the ailing business (and a mountain of debt) to his sons. The children worked brutal 12-hour days, lugging around and battering monstrous chunks of clay.

A depiction of The Churchyard Works in Burslem, England, where Josiah served his apprenticeship in the early 1700s (via The Potteries Org)

In these dismal conditions, Josiah contracted smallpox. He narrowly survived, but the illness left his right leg permanently crippled. Unable to perform manual labor, he began to experiment with the business side of pottery: Technology, marketing, and innovation.

By 22, he’d mastered the trade and decided to branch out on his own.

In a neighboring town, Josiah worked with Thomas Whieldon, a renowned potter who’d come up with a signature “tortoiseshell” glaze. By breaking from the mold, Whieldon had attracted acclaim and been able to boost his prices.

Here, Josiah came to his first entrepreneurial realization: “Invention without experiment signifies very little,” he wrote. “Everything derives from experiment[s].”

Move fast and break porcelain

At the time, however, there was little incentive to experiment: It was expensive and risky, and “entrepreneurship” was not celebrated like it is today.

But the young potter had been raised to “question the status quo” of establishments and “create [his] own culture.” And from his village in the hills, he began to notice a shift.

The act of drinking tea, and the fancy ceramic wares it required, was reserved for the upper class — but a “new consumer” was emerging, a generation of up-and-comers who wanted to “display their taste.”

Like aspirational Instagramers, these consumers wanted the world to see them as tea drinking socialites. They wanted fine tea decor, but porcelain was pricey and in short supply. There was a need, it seemed, for a cheaper, aesthetically-pleasing alternative.

Sensing this, Josiah returned to his hometown in 1759, opened a small shop, and voraciously experimented with new glazes and finishes. He picked up an interest in chemistry, studying the effects that “fire, clay, and minerals” had on color and texture. His workshop became a “graveyard of failed crafts.”

A few of Josiah Wedgwood’s many experiments with pigments, chemicals, and colors (The House of Wedgwood)

At last, Josiah’s experimentation paid off: He developed a cream-colored ware more “pure” than any before it — elegant like porcelain, but with the sturdiness and utility required for everyday use.

It wouldn’t be long before he established a lucrative marketing arrangement.

The first luxury name brand

In June of 1765, Josiah received a letter in the mail that would change his fate: An invitation to a competition.

It beckoned potters across the country to submit a “complete set of tea things” for the personal use of Queen Charlotte: Dozens of teacups, saucers, coffee mugs, candlesticks, sugar dishes, and fruit bowls.

Josiah understood something that other potters didn’t: Queen Charlotte was the ultimate influencer. As historian Brian Dolan writes, he saw an opportunity to do what “nobody else would undertake.” 

He won. But more importantly, the Queen was so impressed with Josiah’s cream-colored wares that she decreed him “Her Majesty’s Potter.”

Recognizing new marketing value, Josiah placed ads in local papers advertising his pottery as “Queensware.” Suddenly, aspirational Britons were clamoring for his work.

At a time when no luxury brand names existed, he opened an exclusive showroom in London and built hype by capitalizing on consumers’ Queen-envy.

When people would walk in, they’d see a full-color catalog of his products; only “people of fashion” would be permitted to see the actual items, hidden at the back of the room. In this way, he engineered an aura of exclusivity and scarcity. 

Reproductions of Josiah’s “Queensware” (eBay)

“Once the world was out that a limited number of new vases were available to the privileged,” writes Dolan, “the price would simply reflect the idea that only people of status had real taste”

It was a brand new principle of marketing: “Deny the majority the ability to purchase art, then use their lack of means as inadequate taste.” Once an item would “grow stale” with the upper crust, he’d cut the price and market it to the wider, aspirational class.

And Josiah didn’t stop with England. He realized there was a similar consumer revolution unfolding in America — and that, despite a mounting tea frenzy, there wasn’t a single potter in the 13 colonies to fill the demand. From a port in Liverpool, he grew a healthy export business; even George Washington was said to have ordered a set.

He’d built the first luxury brand the modern world had ever seen.

“Great artists steal”

Josiah realized that in this new era of conspicuous consumption, “every rarity soon grows stale.” Like all great innovators, he strove for permanency but understood the novelty of his inventions was ephemeral.

Nearly everything Josiah created was almost instantly copied by a cadre of other potters who leeched off his success. His solution to this was multi-tiered: 1) He constantly blitzed the market with new products, and 2) He developed new ways to sell them.

He sensed a growing demand for antiquities, and started making pottery that “pottery that reminded the new money of the rustic life they left behind.” He invented a new form of porcelain called “jasperware.” He pioneered new glazes, new designs, new firing methods.

A portrait of Josiah Wedgwood in mid-age (via The Wedgwood Museum)

At the time, logistics were not ideal: Crates of pottery would be transported by horses on bumpy roads and pieces were often broken in transit. He was the first merchant to offer both free delivery and free returns on broken goods. At the same time, he lobbied for the creation of a major transport canal that would cut down on losses.

Long before the rise of door-to-door salesmen, Josiah sent workers around London neighborhoods to “cold-sell” his products and drum up demand.

These salesmen would cart around “hand-annotated catalogs” with full-color images of his offerings, along with samples of his glazes on tiles. More crucially, they would “provide direct feedback from retailer to designer on market trends and on which patterns would benefit from amendment.”

If Josiah’s customers weren’t satisfied, he’d offer them free returns, knowing full well that trust the gesture gained outweighed any lost inventory.

The Googleplex of its time

The rise of Josiah’s business fortuitously coincided with the Industrial Revolution: Machines were changing the nature of work, including pottery.

In 1769, with the help of a cash infusion from his wife’s wealthy family, Josiah opened Etruria — one of the first modern factories ever constructed in England. And long before the “company towns” of Silicon Valley, he set about creating an insulated community for his staff.

His employees, whom he called ‘Etrurians,’ were the Googlers of their time, and he offered them housing in 42 units built next to the factory. It was, by the industrial standards of the time, a “model community” with strictly enforced rules: No drinking, no gambling, no obscene language.

Etruria, as depicted by painter John Wakefield (“Wedgwood Factory, Etruria”)

Like Steve Jobs, Josiah ruled his domain with the ego of a perfectionist: He’d walk through the factory floor smashing any inadequate pottery with his cane. Workers became accustomed to his favorite line: “This will not do for Josiah Wedgwood.”

Efficiency was tantamount: He instituted the first “punch-in” clock and was an early adopter of the division of labor.

In turn, he “rewarded” workers with a crude form of health coverage and retirement, daycare for their children, and classes. His vision was at once good-natured and imposingly paternal: He wanted to cultivate entrepreneurial minds.

The potter meets his urn

By the time Josiah died in 1795, he’d amassed a fortune of £600k pounds (more than US $100m today), and was the 4th richest man in all of England.

He was cited as one of the most important manufacturers in the kingdom’s history, an “ingenious and industrious man” who had become a “national source of wealth.” 

Passed down for generations, his company, Wedgewood, continues to exist today Though it has since transferred ownership, its longevity is a testament to the power of his brand.

Like pottery, we’ll all return to dust one day. Factories will crumble. Inventions will rust into irrelevance. But as Wedgwood reminds us, good branding and the spirit of experimentation can transcend time.

NOTE: If you’d like to learn more about Josiah Wedgwood, check out historian Brian Dolan’s biography, “Wedgwood: The First Tycoon,” or the BBC documentary, “Josiah Wedgwood, The Genius.” Both are excellent.

Shark Tank approved →

Weekend Recap

Miss an email this week? Here’s a rundown of our top headlines from the past 7 days:

1. WORDPLAY OF THE WEEK: Out with the old, in with the n00b

As consumers continue to leave physical copies of games on the shelf, brick-and-mortar video game stores like GameStop are slowly going the way of the Blockbuster.

2. OUR FAVORITE: GDPR has done wonders for ‘data governance’ companies

Tech giants used to play fast and loose with your data. But with Sheriff GDPR working to clean up the streets, ‘data governance’ companies like Collibra had its best year ever in 2018 — and it just raised $100m at a valuation of more than $1B.

3. ‘TODAY I LEARNED’: People friggin’ love the share-economy

People will literally find a way to create a business out of sharing anything these days, even if that means reducing one’s stay at a hotel to a pay-per-minute model. You know… for naps. Now, Recharge is moving its pay-per-minute model to actual homes. You know… for naps. 

4. OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS: The future is calling, and it dialed in on a landline.

The number of households with hard-line phones is just south of 50% these days. And NumberAI, a startup that adds texting to landlines, raised $10.5m. 

5. TECH TROUBLES: The US is pursuing criminal charges against Huawei

Holy Hua-camole: On Monday, a grand jury charged the world’s largest telecom giant with conspiracy to steal trade secrets, attempted theft of trade secrets, obstruction of justice, and 7 counts of wire fraud. And it all centers around a T-Mobile robot named Tappy.

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