Hmm, interesting title for an article, Wilbur Buds. Sounds a bit like a person’s name. I’d like to discuss the history of an obscure (somewhat) product and the reason why I believe many have never heard of Wilbur Bud but have heard of the successfully marketed copycat.
Ok, rather than keep you in suspense guessing at what the copycat is (or worse, leaving the article to go do a quick Google search). I’ll start off by telling you immediately who the famous copycat is. I’m quite sure most are familiar with them. They run a multi-billion dollar chocolate company located in Pennsylvania (in fact, the city is named after them). That’s right, the Hershey chocolate company. The product? The Hershey Kiss.
Long before Hershey ever created their now-famous Hershey Kiss, another chocolate manufacturer was creating a small chocolate cone-shaped treat wrapped in foil. H.O. Wilbur and Son chocolatiers located in a small town in Lititz, Pennsylvania began selling their “Wilburbud” in 1894. The handcrafted chocolate bites were each made with incredible attention to detail, the bottom of each stamped with a unique petal shape and the letters spelled out W.I.L.B.U.R.
For many years they successfully sold their chocolate Buds and did well. Good press reviews and publicity eventually attracted the attention of other candy makers. One of these candy makers was Milton Hershey who began creating chocolate bars and other chocolate candy in 1900-1901 (yes, years after Wilbur and Son).
It was not until 7 years later in 1907 that Hershey announced their “new” product. A Hershey Kiss. The kiss looked remarkably similar to the Wilburbud but lacked the level of detail and craftmanship of the original.
So, what made the difference? Why did the copycat product which didn’t appear until well over 10 years later become more popular and a nationally (globally?) recognized product? The answer is in the detail. Or rather, the lack of detail. While Wilbur and Son focused on creating handcrafted, detailed chocolates (remember the embossed bottom). Hershey took a different approach.
Hershey had developed methods of mass producing chocolate bars and in 1907 when they announced the release of the Hershey Kiss they created a way to mass produce this chocolate as well. Sure, they lacked the detail, the craftsmanship of the original; but they were capable of scaling to meet a nationwide market.
So, what does this mean? I think it’s an interesting story and lends itself to be a great example of a very common modern situation. So many times entrepreneurs like to think they are inventing a brand new product for a brand new market and while there are times when this is possible and accomplished. Many many more times there are great products that are a variation of an existing product.
If the product/industry is not new, what determines success? I believe the difference can be found in a couple of key areas.
Having a scalable product is the first critical item to focus on when growing in a market where competition already exists. Be prepared first of all to handle the traffic, and load of selling to a much larger audience than the existing companies. Be focused on making your product or solution available as easily as possible to your target market. Hershey took advantage of assembly-line, machine-made, production to create a product which could be easily shipped nationwide.
If Wilbur had been able to envision the national demand for the product and create a method for distribution then things may have been very different. Obviously being scalable wasn’t the only factor. Let’s look at another.
Minimum Viable Product
Hershey delivered a minimum viable product. I am in no way implying that the Hershey Kiss was somehow inferior or of lesser quality than Wilbur’s. In fact, Mr. Hershey is credited with the following quote:
“Give them quality. That’s the best kind of advertising in the world.”
Clearly he believed in delivering a quality product. This is a common mistake when outlining a minimum viable product. Being quick and simple does not mean lacking in quality. You can easily product a minimum viable product of extremely high quality.
In this particular instance Hershey saw the advantage of forgoing a special embossed base to the candy because (at the time) this would lend itself to an assembly line production much easier.
Hershey created a minimum viable product which could be easily scaled and shipped across the nation. The result? Hershey kisses are known the world over and has become a significant part of the Hershey Company’s $4 billion annual revenue.
As business owners when looking to take your product to the next level be thoughtful in your approach. Look for ways to deliver a scalable solution to your largest customer base. And secondly don’t focus on all the bells and whistles. Deliver a clean and fully functional minimum viable product. And don’t mistake this minimum viable product as somehow inferior in quality.
Oh, and just in case you’re wondering. Wilbur chocolate still exists. Iff you’re ever in the quaint small town of Lititz, Pennsylvania you can stop by and pick up some of the tasty Wilburbuds. But you’ll have to visit them personally as they don’t distribute to any outlets.