March is Women’s History Month. Ordinarily what would follow is the proud history of a famous or well-known woman who paved the way for countless others in her field and a cheerful reminder of the equal share of credit women have in developing the modern world. But instead, let’s center on Brownie Wise (yes, this was her real name), a not so famous woman who undeniably revolutionized an important consumer brand we all know today as Tupperware!
One reason Wise might not be a household name like Marie Curie, Shirley Chisholm or Susan B. Anthony is that Wise was not the inventor of the iconic container. Her skills were instead in the area business development, more specifically multi-level marketing. Let’s get you up to speed. Tupperware was invented by Earl Silas Tupper in 1945. Inspired by the common paint can, Tupper developed a container called the Wonderbowl which featured an airtight, watertight seal. The invention was later renamed Tupperware, however it did not start out as the household success we know it to be today.
It wasn’t until 1951 that the gifted marketing genius Brownie Wise approached Tupper in Massachusetts and persuaded him that the product should be concentrated not in supermarkets, but sold via home parties hosted by women where its durability and ergonomics could be immediately demonstrated to friends and neighbors. Today this is known as the “party plan system of marketing” which we see with candle parties and jewelry etc. Tupper must have liked her reasoning, because he hired Wise on the spot and they formed a partnership to execute the new business strategy. She went on to train an army of saleswomen who would host parties at their homes and show off Tupperware to new customers and recruit new ladies into the business, concentrating efforts in the place no one had thought to before. This was multi-level marketing and crowdsourcing in its infancy! Wise soon became the face of the company and appeared on talk shows and interviews all over the country and became the first woman on the cover of Business Week magazine.
Wise’s contribution to Tupper’s invention meant more than what is now -- an important and iconic part of any kitchen. She had proved herself to be a strong and competent woman in a man’s business world and singlehandedly changed the consumer’s perspective of a salesperson from the man in a suit and briefcase traveling door-to-door, to women demonstrating products as they would be used while entertaining in the comfort of their home. But more importantly, Wise’s business know-how and marketing prowess helped save Tupper’s struggling business by recognizing the opportunity Tupperware presented and its ability to solve a consumer problem. With this innovation, she was able to help a business thrive in the time of its greatest adversity.
Wise’s story also reminds us of how there is always room for improvement. Tupper had a viable product that was able to prove itself, but it wasn’t enough. But Wise had the uncanny ability to identify how a good product could be made great through her ingenuity and vision, something all business owners can learn from and grow from as a result.
Brownie Wise may not be a household name like the product line she grew, but she’s an important figure in the history of women in business. Thanks to her, we still have the endlessly useful Tupperware containers keeping our food fresh and secure after all of these years.
Look out for a movie about Wise’s life with Sandra Bullock in the starring role!
- Co-written by Matthew Gilbert