Lessons Blown From Waterford

WATERFORD, IRELAND – When I converse with anyone about an old, deceased brand, the conversation often comes to the point where we wonder about the brand’s value, especially if I am the only person who knows of the brand name.

I came across a perfect situation while reviewing a March 1961 National Geographic, which featured “The Magic Road Round Ireland”. In the story, there was a photograph of Waterford Glass by Robert Sisson, which I photographed here. The caption noted that the brand disappeared because of “crippling excise taxes” and was revived in 1951.

To determine the book “value” of a brand after it has completely disappeared, accounting wise, is a fairly straightforward thing. Once it has passed for three years out of the trademark register, or has been discontinued long enough to be forgotten by the public,  its value is pretty much nil, officially. Today, there are once national restaurant chains that have surviving franchisees that pay no money for “the name” as the presumed value of the brand has disappeared. Accounting wise, brands are not well cared for on balance sheets, and often ignored; a page of reports by Jim Gregory’s Core Brand gives the details here.

Which is why the case of Waterford Crystal, now part of WWRD Holdings, is so instructive.

The Waterford Glass Works began in the 18th century with entrepreneurs George and William Penrose, who utilized artisans in Waterford to create the sort of high quality glassware found elsewhere in Europe. Working closely with government and craftsman, for nearly a century Waterford produced classic glassware for the elites. But it shut down in 1851, and was closed for over 100 years.

After World War II, entrepreneur Charles Bacik (1910-91) came to Ireland and rebuilt the legacy using the Waterford idea and a niche-but-remembered name mystique as his marketing tool. He had a Czech glass tradition, and married it to a local idea.

We would venture to guess, however, that the perceived “value” of Waterford in the pauper-land that was post World War II Ireland, was not great, and perhaps only had value in the minds of certain people who still had the glass, or knew about it. What Bacik understood was that there was a great tradition and legacy in the idea of Waterford, and he could connect that legacy to the craftsmen, salesmen and marketing people who could make it work again.

Unfortunately, and in the latter part of the 20th century, the company was mismanaged, sold, and manufacturing was moved out of town, and the labor struggle that ensued made world headlines. Only recently has a Waterford visitor center reopened.

Very often manufacturers are only looking at costs when they think of manufacturing, but connections to a historic location make a brand authentic. Today, the brand Waterford has done un-useful things with the Waterford name by making Waterford outside of its native city.

Some points:

  • Today’s consumer is obsessed with authenticity and local connections; hundreds upon hundreds of new boutique brands are connecting their location to their product.
  • Strong personal convictions, leadership and skill are essential: Brands cannot be a pure marketing or licensing play. What revived Waterford was a skilled entrepreneur who knew about glass.
  • Design is central. The creative, iterative part of a consumer product brand is essential. While some brands like toothpaste, soap and canned foods can remain mostly static and survive, good craftsmanship and artistry cannot be ignored.

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