Tesco and Wedgwood, bookends of the marketing era

Marketing milestones are flashing past and its only week two. Already the New Year has brought the demise of the worlds first consumer brand, Wedgwood. Its owner Waterford Wedgwood has gone into administration, though hopefully a private equity deal will save it. Should we read anything into the downfall of the pottery brand created in the 1760s? We might infer that the consumer society which it helped create 250 years ago is now going through extraordinary convulsions that will change the rules of the game forever.

Marketing milestones are flashing past and it’s only week two. Already the New Year has brought the demise of the world’s first consumer brand, Wedgwood. Its owner Waterford Wedgwood has gone into administration, though hopefully a private equity deal will save it. Should we read anything into the downfall of the pottery brand created in the 1760s? We might infer that the consumer society which it helped create 250 years ago is now going through extraordinary convulsions that will change the rules of the game forever.

That leads us galloping past the second milestone, which may be of more immediate significance.Tesco’s online grocery service is offering new advice to customers on how to save money. At the top of the list it advises: “Only buy what you need and avoid impulse buys.”

Avoid impulse buys? If shoppers heed this advice, it will undo decades of marketing and advertising which have been geared towards encouraging people to buy on a whim. Significant industries have been built on the back of impulse buying, which accounts for up to two thirds of confectionery purchases according to some estimates and large shares of all FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) sales.

Tesco itself is a deft hand at encouraging people to buy outside their shopping list with end of aisle gondolas offering cut price goods and brand tie-ups.

So will the Cheshunt Leviathan dispense with impulse marketing altogether? Not exactly. “The advice is not contradictory, it is supplementary,” says a spokesman. “As you know, we are all about giving customers choice,” he says. So Tesco will continue to encourage people to buy on impulse while at the same time advising them not to do so if they want to save money. Who said you can’t have it both ways?

Josiah Wedgwood may have invented an early from of impulse marketing. The founder of the eponymous china manufacturer was certainly a pioneer of marketing methods still used today. He noticed that the middle-classes could fulfil their aspirations to aristocracy on the cheap by buying mass market versions of the tableware favoured by the nobility. This was the “conspicuous consumption” later identified by Thorstein Veblen where the masses mimicked the “leisure class” through buying aspirational consumer goods.

Wedgwood invented publicity-led marketing, such as creating replicas of pottery from newly-unearthed Pompeii and obtaining a commission from Catherine the Great of Russia. Another 18th century marketing innovation was opening a showroom in London, where crowds could go to ogle and the newly rich might buy a dinner service on impulse.

It seems inconceivable that modern impulse marketing will disappear simply because Tesco advises cash strapped shoppers to control their urges. The retailer is right, though, that sticking to the shopping list is a way to control expenditure.

But if this Every Little Helps philosophy really catches on as part of some post-consumerist trend tied to ecological minimalism, it will be a huge shift for marketers. Selling goods to people who stick closely to a budget is a very different task from charming the pounds from their wallets as they shop.

Yet again, Tesco may be at the forefront of a new trend. Once more, it leaves brand marketers with another hurdle to jump.

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