The ability to change direction is at the heart of innovation. Innovators are rarely stuck in their ways, they are always willing to change and then change again. The message for would-be innovators is clear: be flexible enough to change. Today’s successful product range is tomorrow’s failure. If you see an opportunity follow it.
Consider the story of Wrigley’s.
In 1891, William Wrigley moved from Philadelphia to Chicago, where the company’s headquarters are located today at the Wrigley Building at 410 North Michigan Avenue. He was twenty-nine years and had just $32 to his name. His pockets may have been empty but his head was full of dreams. A natural salesman, Wrigley dreamed of starting his own business.
In Chicago he set up a business selling soap to the wholesale trade. Ahead of his time, Wrigley understood the benefits of free promotions. To make his products more attractive to buyers he offered gifts including free baking powder. The baking powder proved more popular than the soap, so like any good entrepreneur, Wrigley moved out of the soap business and into baking powder.
And so it might have continued had it not have been for another of his free promotions. In 1892, he decided to offer two packs of chewing gum with each can of baking powder. It was an even bigger hit than the free baking powder had been. Once again, Wrigley switched businesses. Chewing gum, he felt, was where his future lay. This time he was right.
The first Wrigley chewing gums, Lotta Gum and Vassar, were launched that same year. They were followed in 1893, by Juicy Fruit and Wrigley’s Spearmint. The two flavors have been with us ever since.
By 1911, Wrigley’s Spearmint was America’s number 1 chewing gum and Wrigley was ready to spread his wings. He introduced PK chewing gum – which was sold in a tightly packed pellet form rather than loose in a box . The name, evidently, was inspired by the advertising slogan that accompanied it: “Packed Tight – Kept Right”.
The company became a public corporation in 1919. Its stock was first listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the Midwest Stock Exchange in 1923. In 1944, Wrigley’s entire production was turned over to the U.S. Armed Forces overseas and at sea (as was the production of Hershey chocolate). It may have lost some of its appeal today, but the slogan “Got any gum, chum?” was a big hit with military personnel at the time.
After the war, the invention of the teenager gave Wrigley’s another huge boost. When they weren’t puffing on a cigarette, Rock ‘n’ Roll rebels chewed gum. Its popularity was guaranteed by parents who despised the constant jaw motion of their surly off-spring, and branded chewing gum a disgusting habit. This simply made Wrigley’s product more popular than ever with high school kids.
As the century advanced, and American consumers became ever more hygiene conscious, so fresh breath became a serious issue. Once again, Wrigley’s rode to the rescue. Chewing gum had the additional benefit of hiding the smell of cigarettes and alcohol – or so millions of teenagers and errant husbands believed.
The years were kind to Wrigley’s. It had the good fortune to be in business at a time when American culture was being exported all over the world. The process started by the archetypal gum-chewing GI in World War II, and immortalized by Hollywood. The demand for all things American, meant that domestic chewing gums, like domestic cigarettes, were just no substitute for the genuine article. The mass marketing of American was and is a triumph of branding.
The irony is that many of those American branded products are no longer made there. Today, Wrigley’s produces its distinctively packaged chewing gum in factories around the world. It is unlikely to go back to soap.