50 years on, why Willy Wonka is still a marketing genius
50 years on, why Willy Wonka is still a marketing genius
A view from Rob Sellers

The golden rules of promotion: 50 years on, why Willy Wonka is still a marketing genius

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was first published in 1964 in the US by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. A world renowned book which not only provides an entertaining read for children, but also great marketing benchmark for the golden rules of promotion, writes Rob Sellers, director at GreyShopper London.

"The man’s dotty!" Muttered Grandma Josephine"

"He’s brilliant!" cried Grandpa Joe. "He’s a magician! Just imagine what will happen now! The whole world will be searching for those Golden Tickets! Everyone will be buying Wonka’s chocolate bars in the hope of finding one! He’ll sell more than ever before!"

2014 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of the world’s most loved children’s books. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has sold millions of copies in dozens of languages, won numerous awards and shaped the imagination of three generations of children.

At Grey, we talk about ‘Long Ideas’ that become part of culture and stay with us, changing the way we think and our behaviour. Still making headlines, with Penguin’s controversial cover choice for the anniversary edition, this book is a brilliant example.

I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to my son earlier this year – we enjoyed it as much as each other. Perhaps my biggest thrill was being able to give this inquisitive four year old a sense of what I do for a living.  

It might be over simplifying the extremely strategic and creative world of shopper and activation marketing, but it is amazing that a book so culturally resonant for so many has a sales promotion at its heart.

Yes, we know the real lessons Dahl intended for his readers were to be grateful, polite and humble children, and for parents not to create spoilt, greedy and rude facsimiles lest they get sucked up a giant tube or sent to the trash with the rest of the bad eggs.

However, for those of us with an interest in marketing, we can also learn about the foundations of great promotions, and even greater Long Ideas.

Keep it simple

Wonka’s a genius. He can do anything – from the most incredible confectionary concoctions to elevators that can fly into space. But when it comes to a sales promotion mechanic, he runs a simple in-pack instant win. No frills, no technology, no barriers. Just open the pack to see if there’s a ticket inside. And he runs it across all products, without worrying about sub-brand x or SKU y.

Money can’t buy


Win a Holiday? Win a telly? Win stuff? Win cash? Blah blah blah blah. The thing that makes me most angry with big promotions is a lack of imagination when it comes to the incentive. LikeWonka’s, prizes must do two important things a) it acts as an incentive to purchase, and b) it becomes a crystalised articulation of what makes the brand special. Thinking too rationally about incentives (yeah, but everybody likes a holiday, right?) means brands often miss out on a huge creative opportunity. Wonka got his promotion spot on, because he realised it was the very mystery of his invention that made people buy his chocolate in the first place.


"Mind you" said Grandpa Joe, "there is just that one tiny chance that it might be the one, don’t you agree!"

Although Wonka only provides five Golden Tickets, the hope is enough to drive people wild looking for the winning bars. Some of the five winners have bought mountains of chocolate in an attempt to win. By limiting the number of prizes, and announcing when each ticket is found, the Fear of Missing Out becomes feverish. Yes, high frequency of win is a great thing to drive sustained engagement in a promotion, but don’t forget that people play in hope rather than expectation. Charlie Bucket’s miracle reminds us why millions of people play the National Lottery each week.

Make it famous

"Cameras were clicking and flashbulbs were flashing and people were pushing and jostling and trying to get a bit closer to the famous girl."

Wonka’s an arch showman and storyteller. He makes sure that he is front page news, securing global press coverage akin to the birth of a royal baby. Fame is at the heart of what he is trying to do. He wants the promotion to be talked about, shared and trending. A great creative idea will capture the imagination of the media and resonate with audiences. If you want a Long Idea to start with a promotion, ask if it has the potential to explode into mainstream and social media spaces, and then ensure you have the right skills and expertise to make it happen.