Today we hear from Giles Lury, author of Inspiring Innovation: 75 Marketing Tales To Help You Find The Next Big Thing. He tells the tale of a Newcastle brand whose innovation went ‘down the drain’.
Newcastle may not be the first place you think of as a centre of innovation, but this story will be the fourth one I’ve written about brands that were born in that northern English city. Having written about Lucozade, Greggs, and Newcastle Brown Ale, this brand story starts with a dentist before it literally goes down the drain.
Wilfred (sometimes spelt Wilfrid) Augustine Handley followed in his father’s footsteps, and in the early 1900s became a dentist (or rather what at the time was called a ‘dental mechanic’). Father and son practised at the family home at 309 Chillingham Road for many years.
Wilfred’s big idea started with what was a waste product, sodium hypochlorite. He bought it from the ICI chemical works at Billingham and used the compound as a bleaching agent to whiten dentures, and perhaps even intact teeth. Wilfred knew the whitening solution had wider potential and started to dilute and bottle it.
In fact, bleach in one form or another had been around since the 18th century. in the late 19th century, E. S. Smith patents the chloralkali process for producing sodium hypochlorite, which was initially sold as a bleach under a number of brand names, none of which met with great success.
While Wilfred didn’t actually invent bleach, he did get the marketing and distribution right. First, he chose a brand name. According to the brand’s current owner, Unilever, he chose a combination of the Latin ‘Domus’, meaning house, and the Greek ‘osteon’, meaning bone, suggesting the backbone of the home.
Wilfred’s family tell it a little differently. An alternative version holds that the dentist-entrepreneur asked his mother what his product should be called. Before answering, she asked what it was for. When Wilfred replied, ‘Domestic use’ she came up with ‘Domestos’.
Similarly, his second innovation was not a completely original idea either – it was probably inspired by the success of another local brand, Ringtons Tea, which had been established in the Liverpool suburb of Heaton in 1907. Ringtons was sold door-to-door in the area, with great success, and that was what Wilfred decided to do as well.
He bottled Domestos bleach in large brown earthenware jars, which then could be refilled by door-to-door salesmen pushing hand carts or riding bicycle carts. The bleach was promoted as a cleaning agent to whiten linens and white clothing and to pour down drains to ‘sweeten’ them. It was a real success. By 1933, Wilfred’s goods were being shipped south to Hull by sea, and within two years supply depots had opened in both Hull and Middlesbrough.
The brand prospered during World War II when it was more broadly marketed as a cure for sore feet and a treatment for burns. The war’s end could have slowed things down, as the company was unable to acquire enough delivery vehicles. Showing more ingenuity, Domestos overcame the problem by purchasing the St Ann’s Works at Heaton Junction and setting up their own coach-building division. By 1952 there was national distribution, with offices in London, Manchester, Cardiff, York and Glasgow, as well as a national research laboratory.
In 1961, Wilfred sold the brand to Lever Brother’s Ltd.
SPARKPOINT: If the right supply chain isn’t there, or the current one isn’t serving your purpose, you may need to be brave enough to do it yourself.
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