Saturday, January 23, 2010
Fantastic Plastic: The Rise and Fall of Brownie Wise
Chances are you don't know who the lady in the picture is, which is a shame - she was the first woman to ever appear on the cover of Business Week, a self-made marketing and sales genius, and enjoyed a prolific career during a time when women didn't hold prestigious titles in the corporate world. Her name is Brownie Wise, and she was responsible for making Tupperware the company it is today. But you won't find Brownie's name anywhere on the Tupperware site. It's as if she never existed. Any mention of her was removed from company material in the late 50s, when she was fired by the company's owner, Earl Tupper. Her story is, at least to me, one of the biggest business travesties of justice. I admire her more than Martha Stewart or any other famous modern businesswoman. Seriously, a movie should be made about Brownie's life and Tupperware's callousness exposed. Hollywood, are you listening?
Brownie was a southern gal and a divorced mother who could use her charm and personality to persuade anyone to do anything that she wanted - a quality of a good salesperson. She initially held several jobs including writing and secretarial work, but she excelled at direct selling for the Stanley Home Products, a company that made brushes and home cleaning items. She quickly became one of Stanley's top salespersons.
Tupperware had just hit the market after World War II, but sales were lukewarm. One day Brownie was in a store and checking out a Tupperware container and decided that they, too, should be sold out of homes so that the "burping" lid could be demonstrated in person.
Brownie and her son moved to Florida where she started a company called Tupperware Patio Parties. When Earl Tupper, Tupperware's owner and CEO found out about her success, he called her in to learn more about her selling tactics. It wasn't long before Brownie became Tupperware's VP, and the products were sold exclusively through home parties.
The Tupperware home party - which became a huge trend in the 1950s - was very popular with housewives who wanted to earn a little extra income and have some sort of a life outside of marriage and tending to the home. Brownie played on the 1950s fantasies by marketing Tupperware as a way to make food preparation cleaner and faster. Tupperware also mapped out for new dealers how many parties one would have to hold to obtain a new television set or carpet.
Brownie also knew the importance of rewarding and motivating her salesforce. She was responsible for creating the "Jubilee", an annual four day meeting for all salespeople held in Florida. The Jubilee was one big party, with fashion shows and prizes such as cars and trips being handed out anonymously by a "Jubilee Fairy" to unsuspecting employees. Video clips from Jubilees can be seen here.
As the American Experience (who showed a documentary on Brownie in 2002) states, "Wise knew how to inspire her managers and dealers to work harder -- and to believe in themselves. She was a good -- if sentimental -- writer, and an excellent speaker. She offered women the opportunity to earn extra money, to travel, and to be part of an organization that pulled out the stops and did everything first class. She recognized women who got very little recognition elsewhere in their lives, bestowing upon them trophies, luxury goods and applause. And she taught others in the company how to do the same."
Brownie soon became extremely popular with the media - while the grumpy Earl Tupper hated the attention, the charismatic Brownie lapped it up. She appeared on talk shows and in magazines. When the press implied that Brownie was solely responsible for Tupperware's success, Earl Tupper grew jealous and infuriated. He and Brownie began to disagree on business matters. Despite the fact that Tupperware by this point was selling so many products their manufacturing plant in New England couldn't keep up, he fired Brownie. She held no company stock and was given a one-year salary as severance. Every reference to her in company literature was removed.
Brownie tried to start a makeup company with little success. She died in Florida at the age of 79.
Such an unfit and unfair ending for a woman who made Tupperware a recognizable and household name. Make me proud - the next time you use a Tupperware product, take a few seconds to think of Brownie Wise.