Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is a chaotic, absurd movie. The 1971 version seemed to run all the time on TV in the 1990s and 2000s, becoming – against all odds – a staple of Millenial culture, even getting turned into a popular meme. Because we’ve all seen it as kids, it’s easy to forget how absolutely bananas it all is. One kid gets sucked up into a chocolate river pipeline, another falls down a garbage chute, and still another turned into a giant blueberry ripe for juicing. And somehow, it all works and makes a really cohesive, fun movie.
But there’s one part of the movie that’s deeply rooted in reality: marketing strategy.
Oh, yes, my friends. Willy Wonka is, for better or worse, the consummate capitalist. He’s a titan of taffy and a baron of bubblegum. And the secret of his industrial success: god-tier marketing skills. (And paying workers in cocoa beans).
Believe it or not, I think there are practical lessons to be found in this movie that go beyond “don’t eat random things while touring a factory.” No, I actually think this movie has a lot to teach small business owners and ambitious marketers through metaphor. I’ll talk about that in a second. But first…
…here’s what you need to know if you haven’t seen the movie in a while
It’s probably been a long time since you’ve seen Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. (Or read the Roald Dahl book or watched the Tim Burton & Johnny Depp remake). So real quick, here’s a recap of the 1971 movie starring Gene Wilder.
Charlie Bucket is a destitute child living with his elderly grandparents. He passes Willy Wonka’s extraordinary factory every single day on his paper route.
Reclusive candy tycoon, Willy Wonka, announces a contest in which five Golden Tickets are hidden in the wrappers of Wonka Bars. People who win tickets get to visit the factory with one other person of their choice – a privilege never before granted to anyone. This sets off a veritable shopping frenzy leading people to hit up candy shops like it’s Black Friday. Against all odds, Charlie buys a single candy bar, wins, and takes his grandpa to tour the factory with him.
He is joined by a cadre of other children and their parents, all of whom are varying degrees of awful. Their character flaws lead them to suffering various terrible fates in Mr. Wonka’s non-OSHA-compliant factory. At the end, after a bit of head games, Willy Wonka chooses Charlie as the heir to his company upon his retirement.
With that in mind, I’ll now talk about why the Golden Ticket contest is A+ marketing.
1. The Golden Ticket contest was deliberately designed to be a media event.
Media events are events, activities, or experiences that exist for the sole purpose of courting media attention. A good example from another film would be Groundhog Day. The groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, is nothing more than an actor in a ceremony designed to get Bill Murray to do banal reporting on it. The same logic is used by Willy Wonka to sell candy bars.
Also known as a pseudo-event, the term “media event” was coined by Daniel J. Boorstin. It comes from The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, a book that he wrote right after John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 election, which being a very tight election, may very well have happened because JFK was so telegenic, rather than because he was a better debater.
I mention this because Roald Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1964 and it was adapted into a movie in 1971, which is right after when television really went mainstream. In the same way that we’re still trying to understand how social media will change our lives, people then were trying to understand how television would change their lives.
But Willy Wonka immediately understood the assignment. He knew that if he made a really attractive contest and told the world about it, the newspapers, radio, and newly empowered television stations would go nuts over it. And that’s exactly what they did.
You may not have the resources to bombard television stations with news of your event, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get the word out. My advice? Treat every single product launch you do like a media event, and talk to anyone you can: bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers, influencers, and – yes – the mass media if you can get a hold of them.
2. Golden Tickets drove sales, giving Willy Wonka the investment capital he needed to release new products.
It takes money to run a business, and if you can’t get sales, you’re dead in the water. Companies need steady revenues for a healthy cash flow, as well as the capital they need to make more products, offer more services, and ultimately grow into larger organizations.
A lot of folks get the idea that marketing is about plastering the world with advertisements and getting people to see their brand name a bunch of times. That can be an important part of the job, yes, but it’s not the most important.
The most important part is making products that are a good fit for a well-defined target market. Willy Wonka does this by making all kinds of wonderful candies for children and adults to enjoy. The other important part is making sure that you have a profitable business model that, when you make something good and tell people about it, leads to steady income.
Simple as it is, Willy Wonka keeps his eye on the prize: sales.
3. The concept of the Golden Ticket was simple, and that made it easier to spread on by television, radio, and word-of-mouth.
The best marketing messages tend to be dead simple. Otherwise, they have a hard time spreading. People have enough on their minds without trying to remember all the complicated nuances of what your business has to offer.
The Golden Ticket pitch is simple: buy candy bar, get ticket, see factory. It’s so simple you can sing about it.
It’s no surprise that a message this simple acts as a tremendous force multiplier on what is already a really well-constructed media event.
4. Nothing is more attractive than a secret.
Perhaps it is his lackadaisical attitude toward safety and labor regulations that motivates Mr. Wonka to keep his cards close to his chest. Or perhaps it’s because he’s an introverted soul to the point of being reclusive.
Regardless of his motivation, the outcome is the same. Everybody knows what Willy Wonka is capable of creating. His brand recognition is through the roof. But nobody knows how he does it.
All people know is what they see through the brand messages he’s deliberately putting out there as well as what can be seen from the exterior of the building outside of the gates (which is, itself, part of his brand). The inside could be a literal forest of gumdrops or a soul-dead meatpacking plant in south-central Ohio. You can’t tell by looking from the outside.
The idea of creating a brand with secrets that are denied to consumers is known as the “denial effect“, and it is a tremendously potent strategy. When people don’t have information, they talk and speculate, and create all sorts of free word-of-mouth in the process.
Even the mere act of letting just ten people in – five winners, five guests – furthers this sense of secrecy. If a few of them violated their contracts and did tell-all interviews, it would still create more questions than answers in the mind of the public, further reinforcing this idea of the Chocolate Factory as a forbidden fruit.
Or maybe I’m overthinking it and Willy Wonka really is just that shady.
5. Touring Willy Wonka’s factory was an irreplaceable, irreplicable, once-in-a-lifetime prize.
As many as 78% of Millenials say they would spend money on an “experience” over a “thing.” Now obviously, Millenials weren’t born yet when this movie came out – and, in fact, the children in this film are Baby Boomers!
But this statistic actually hints at a deeper truth about human life. We want to go into old age with heads full of good memories. We all want to say “I did something amazing” or “I was there.” In some ways, when we shop, we shop to form an identity.
Willy Wonka knows this too. His factory – or at least the parts we’re allowed to see – are not set up in a strictly practical or mechanistic way. It’s purposely designed to be like an amusement park. It’s an unforgettable experience.
This is important for two reasons. First, even the promise alone of a truly unique experience is a very compelling contest prize. It’s the reason why so many sweepstakes promise a trip to somewhere beautiful and far away like Vanuatu. But, second, Willy Wonka actually delivers on his promise, giving his factory guests the tour of a lifetime when they’re not drowning in chocolate or falling down chutes.
6. The variable, time-limited nature of the contest gave people serious FOMO.
One of the reasons why sales work so well is because they are time-limited. If you don’t take action now, then the sale is going to go away, and you will have missed out! That’s why FOMO – fear of missing out – is such a powerful motivator.
This is so baked into our consumer psychology that when we go to stores that we know put items on the rack for no less than 40% off all the time, like Macy’s, consumers like you and me still feel compelled to purchase. The one store that dared to buck this trend – J.C. Penney – actually suffered immensely as a result!
Much like a mall retailer, Kickstarter creator, or anyone who uses a countdown clock on their eCommerce store, Willy Wonka creates an intense sense of urgency. Except unlike the mall retailer whose prices are fake or the Kickstarter creator who ends up taking late pledges, you know that when the tickets are gone, they’re gone. And when that happens…
7. Even the smallest purchase gave the player a chance to win.
There are some brands that incentivize their most loyal customers to stick around. The more you spend, the better you are treated. It’s a solid business strategy. After all, loyalty programs are very effective at retaining customers.
To some extent, Willy Wonka does this too. Some kids bought a bunch of candy bars to game the system and increase their chances of winning. Willy Wonka undoubtedly enjoyed the extra sales.
But players did not have to collect 20 box tops to win. They did not need to get a matching set of McDonald’s Monopoly pieces to win. Anybody with the money to buy one candy bar could at least theoretically visit the factory. In that way, Willy Wonka’s contest resembled a lottery more than a loyalty program.
8. The factory tour set the stage for future product launches.
Any savvy business owner knows that non-disclosure agreements don’t always contain secrets. People talk. It’s one of the few constants in the world.
Extra savvy business owners, which includes Willy Wonka, know that keeping an air of secrecy and periodically disclosing secrets can be tremendously powerful. This is why Apple, especially in the late 2000s and early 2010s, gave people the slimmest details on their new iPhones and iPads. Radio silence would have kept Apple out of the news. On the other hand, saying something inscrutable or letting an employee “leak” information would launch hundreds of thinkpieces from tech magazines.
Earlier, I said the secrecy was a selling point. That’s true for the contest. But the secrecy is not the point – sales revenue and future product launches are.
Willy Wonka shows off several new products to his ten guests. Among the products he allows others to see, you have Exploding Candy, Fizzy Lifting Drink, Lickable Wallpaper, Golden Eggs, Three-Course-Meal Gum, and the Everlasting Gobstopper. Many of these products could succeed wildly once they pass his testing process.
He wants those kids and their parents talking about the products. He knows Wonka Bars cannot dominate the market forever – products have lifecycles. He is planning multiple future product launches. Every little half-remembered story these folks tell their friends, relatives, and coworkers is going to build a little more buzz for Willy Wonka. And he doesn’t even have to pay them cocoa beans for it.
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory might be a silly, nostalgic movie. But the marketing lessons behind it are real, and you can learn from them.
Willy Wonka is a savvy businessman with a deep understanding how to make people care. The Golden Ticket contest managed to both drive sales and court media attention. If you learn anything from this movie, it should be this: always be working on something new and always treat new product launches as events!