The Willy Wonka Factor

Running Your Product Strategy like a Madman in a Chocolate Factory

As I type, my kids are watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—not the proper original film starring Gene Wilder, mind you, but the rather goofy one with Jack Sparrow. While suppressing my misgivings for Tim Burton’s adaptation of one of my childhood favorites, I observed something interesting about the plot that is equally inspiring in both the 1971 and 2005 versions. Put simply, there is a highly desirable network effect surrounding the Wonka Bar; one that I believe can be emulated in any product-centric company if one is willing to wear the felt top hat.


In the story, the narrator tells of a chocolate factory—the chocolate factory—which is under a massive competitive attack. The trade secrets of the company are leaked and spied upon relentlessly. So much so, in fact, that Wonka chooses to shutter the factory over suffering the ongoing morass of spying and stolen intellectual property. This brings us to point number one of the Wonka Factor…

1. Be the indisputable leader in providing at least one platform-level feature which has either a secret ingredient or high barrier to being copied

Willy Wonka has Everlasting Gobstoppers, chewing gum that never loses flavor, and all the special ingredients that make up the brand. These core features make up the foundation upon which the rest of the company is built. There is no more obvious example in modern-day business of this point than Apple and the iPhone, whose industrial design has an entire army of Slugworths wondering what that secret ingredient is. Some other Wonkas with secret factories we all want Golden Tickets to:

  • Google and it’s Search Algorithm
  • Amazon and Two-day Prime Shipping
  • Tesla and the Supercharger Network
  • Pinterest and the Inspiration Graph

These are examples of companies that consistently deliver on a Wonka-like promise of unique, whimsical and habit-forming offerings in their respective markets.

Still, simply having a product or service that is highly desirable is not enough; you must have a history of successfully delivering and supporting this value to leverage the Wonka Factor. Further, that value must not be so easily replicated as to allow 100 other competitors to come into the market and lick your product’s secrets right off the walls. The snozzberries taste like snozzberries!

I know of a gas station locally that has the most expensive gasoline in town, but also a good car wash, which is always free with a fill-up. Their commercials highlight excited customers coming back for the car wash, seemingly uncaring that they spend $6 more per tank. While this gas station’s choice to offer a car wash is obvious and reproducible, it is an expensive addition to the overall value offering and thus represents a high barrier feature.

But the competition never rests. Before Slugworth and his ilk chipped away at Wonka’s market share, he was the best in town. Everyone wanted his stuff. So, when the competition looms on the horizon it becomes increasingly important to keep existing customers loyal. But that loyalty must be rewarded

2. Reward loyalty with a truly timeless experience, something that is worthy of resurrecting should it ever go away

The Golden Ticket. While it ultimately represented the mechanism for Wonka to find his successor, it was also a supremely effective marketing ploy to relaunch the Wonka Bar brand. A chance for anyone, of any walk of life, to experience something magical…if only for a day. The entire world was enthralled with the chance at winning, even if only 5 tickets were ever produced.

There are many products and experiences that, were they to go away there would be an innate yearning for it to make a return. Some examples:

  • Chevrolet Corvette
  • Herman Miller Aeron Chair
  • Amazon’s 1-Click Ordering
  • Subzero Refrigerator
  • Oreo Cookie

These products have become part of our culture, like landmarks for us to contextualize our daily interactions with the world around us. Take away these landmarks and one is left wandering around trying to find new versions of them, often peddled by the Slugworths of the world who never seem to get it right.

The Golden Ticket was a chance to resurrect the household-name-normalcy of the Willy Wonka brand. A chance to be part of that resurrection for a fan of the brand is something very visceral, calling one back to something profound. If you’ve achieved this level of Wonkafication, your product or service is likely indistinguishable from your brand; your customers indistinguishable from your advocates, your employees indistinguishable from your Marketing team.

And finally…

3. Actualize someone’s dream, so that you might go on dreaming new things.

As I watch Gene Wilder casually flying through the air in a flying elevator, explaining to Charlie that the chocolate factory is now his, it’s a moment of uplifting clarity about the purpose of the entire film. This is the moment that the dreams of one man passes on to another, so that the vision does not die with the man.

We should strive to build products and services that are worth passing on to the world. As cliché as it may seem, the makers of the world should seek to execute ideas worth remembering…the Everlasting Gobstopper of our lives.


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