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What the man who made Catherine the Great’s teapot can teach you about managing your business

Josiah Wedgwood was the son, grandson, and great grandson of potters. When he was born in 1730, the pottery produced by the Wedgwood family had never left Staffordshire. By the end of his life, however, Wedgwood had sold his wares to almost every royal household in Europe. Examples of his pottery were even gifted to foreign dignitaries, including Indian Maharajas and the Emperor of China, to show off the high quality of British manufacturing.

Wedgwood’s life was a classic rags-to-riches tale. Born the 13th son of a poor potter, all he was promised in life was a £20 inheritance, which was never fulfilled, and a job in the family industry.

When he was 11, a bout of smallpox left Wedgwood with a permanently weakened right leg. This meant he was unable to use a potter’s wheel and so could not follow his father into the family business. Instead, he learned the finer arts of pottery, such as repairing cracked and chipped porcelain.

This was a lucrative business and he soon had enough money to open his own ceramics factory, where he showed the world that having the right set of values in your business can be enough to stand out amongst your competitors.

Wedgwood understood that investing in his employees would reap dividends

Factories in the 18th and 19th centuries were unpleasant places, and workers often suffered from poor wages, inadequate housing, and terrible working conditions. Consequently, factory owners often had difficulty retaining a workforce.

New workers had to be taught everything from scratch, and this significantly lowered productivity. To remedy this problem, Wedgwood went above and beyond to provide good conditions for his employees as he understood that what was good for his employees was also good for his business.

While many of his rivals were happy to let their employees languish in slums, Wedgwood built a model village next to his factory, complete with good-quality houses, a school, and a hospital. He even implemented a rudimentary form of sick pay, something that was almost unknown for the time.

One of the most important ways he invested in his employees, however, was by encouraging them to specialise in a particular part of the pottery-making process. Specialists could earn far higher wages than normal workers and their greater expertise could improve the quality of their work dramatically.

By investing in his employees, Wedgwood helped to create a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce. This, in turn, led to much higher-quality pottery being produced.

Delivering consistently high-quality work made Wedgwood’s brand equity soar

Another way that Wedgwood was able to stand out amongst his rivals was by ensuring his work was consistently high-quality, which helped to guarantee customer confidence.

Wedgwood was a firm believer in having good quality control in his factory. If a piece of pottery did not meet his high standards, he would have it destroyed instead of merely selling it at a discounted price. This helped to ensure that all examples of his work would be of the highest quality.

He had such confidence in the quality of his products that he became the first earthenware potter to consistently mark his products with his brand name, something which was practically unheard of before.

This helped to build brand awareness, and reports of the high quality of his wares spread quickly through word of mouth amongst the monied classes.

Very quickly, the name Wedgwood became a byword for quality. This caused his brand equity to soar, and soon people were willing to pay two or even three times the market price for a piece of authentic Wedgwood pottery.

Wedgwood pioneered novel marketing concepts such as ‘buy-one-get-one-free’

Wedgwood’s brand awareness was soaring, but where his rivals might have been content to rest on their laurels, Wedgwood worked tirelessly to increase it further.

He opened a showroom in London where rich and leisured customers could admire his latest wares whilst being served tea and cake. This showroom quickly became a very fashionable place to visit for members of high society and was an excellent way of advertising his extensive array of products.

Wedgwood also pioneered many business ideas that are now extremely familiar, such as ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ or ‘full refund if not satisfied.’  Whilst today these sorts of deals are common, in the 18th century they were a real novelty.

In 1773, he published a fully illustrated catalogue of his wares so that customers could admire the full range and order from it. He even offered free delivery!

Another of Wedgwood’s innovations was to send direct mail to his regular customers, informing them of new stock, a full two centuries before this practice became commonplace.

The greatest marketing coup for Wedgwood, however, was when he received an order for an incredible 944-piece tea set from Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia. Catherine wanted each piece of the set to be decorated with a unique picture of the English landscape, and Wedgwood hired the finest painters that money could buy to fulfil her request.

Given that the order had taken over a year to complete, Wedgwood made a very meagre profit of only £88, around £16,000 in today’s money.

However, the tea set had immense publicity value and he had it displayed for a whole month in his showroom for visitors to marvel at before he had it sent to Russia. This caused a great sensation among London’s high society, and interest in his wares soared as people jostled to buy the pottery that was fit for an empress.

Even when his products were technically identical to those of his rivals, Wedgwood’s skilful marketing helped him to stand out and stay one step ahead.

Wedgwood found that satisfied customers often became vocal advocates of his business

Wedgwood’s energetic and innovative marketing had won him many new customers, but he also recognised that good customer service was going to be essential if he wanted to keep them.

It could never be said that the goodwill of his clients withered from neglect, as Wedgwood often did everything in his power to keep his customers happy.

Part of this involved bending over backwards to make sure that customers were completely satisfied with their purchase, such as by offering extremely generous refund periods. Wedgwood even hired a large team of translators so that foreign clients could negotiate their purchases in their native tongues.

Wedgwood found that by exceeding the expectations of his clients, satisfied customers often became some of his most vocal advocates and his reputation for high quality wares spread quickly as clients praised the ease of doing business with him.

The language that Wedgwood used in his letters exemplifies his dedication to good customer service, such as in this letter to Sir William Meredith, Baronet and MP for Liverpool:

You have heaped your favours upon me so abundantly that though my heart is overflowing with sentiments of gratitude and thankfulness, I am at a loss at where to begin my acknowledgements. I should be utterly unworthy of your further notice if I did not double my diligence in prosecuting any future plan you are so kind as to lay out for me.

This is probably laying it on a bit thick for modern customers, but it’s an excellent example of the importance of making a client feel valued, as this goodwill would often translate into further sales and free advertising.

Wedgwood combined high-quality work, investment in his employees, and exemplary customer service to create a market-leading business

Josiah Wedgwood was only one of the dozens of industrialists trying to become the dominant force in the pottery industry in the 18th century, but while they prospered, Wedgwood flourished.

Unlike many of the other great industrialists of the age, his humble beginnings meant he had none of the advantages that his rivals had. He had no family connections, no inherited wealth, and hardly any education. Yet despite this, he managed to thrive through a combination of his practical knowledge of the industry and his good business sense.

Josiah Wedgwood’s life is a textbook example of how having a good business model can make all the difference between being a respectable business to being one which others measure themselves against.

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