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If you want to create a better cup of coffee, do your homework

If you want to create a better cup of coffee, do your homework

cup of coffeeBy the beginning of the twentieth century, coffee drinking was no longer a luxury. Melitta Bentz and her husband, Hugo, were among the many people who had recently started to drink it daily, with their breakfast or with cakes and while chatting in the afternoon.

However, Melitta’s enjoyment was marred by the trials and tribulations of brewing a cup. The percolators were prone to over-brew the coffee, espresso-type machines at the time tended to leave grounds in the drink, and linen  filter bags were tiresome to clean.

ink_blotShe was sure that there must be a better way. She started experimenting and, in the end, her homework paid off – or perhaps that should be her son’s homework paid off!

Her solution involved using a nail to poke holes in the bottom of a brass cup and lining it, not with a linen bag but with a sheet of blotting paper from her eldest son’s school notebook.

The results were outstanding. Not only did the coffee taste significantly more aromatic, there were no more grounds in the bottom of the cup, and preparation was fast and simple. There was no bag to wash as you simply threw the used ‘blotting’ paper away.

early prototypeMelitta decided to set up a business and, on 20 June 1908, The Kaiserliche Patentamt (Imperial Patent Office) granted her a patent . On 15 December 1908, she registered her own company “M. Bentz”, for the sale of coffee filters with the trade office in Dresden. Her starting capital was 72 Reichsmark cents. The company headquarters was a room in her apartment.

After contracting a tinsmith to manufacture the devices, they sold 1,200 coffee filters at the 1909 Leipzig fair.

Her husband Hugo and their sons Horst and Willi were the first employees of the emerging company.

melitta1In the 1930s, Melitta revised the original filter, tapering it into the shape of a cone and adding ribs. This created a larger filtration area, allowing for improved extraction of the ground coffee.

In 1936, the widely recognised cone-shaped filter paper that fits inside the tapered filter top was introduced and the brand continued to grow.

And the moral is innovation comes from seeing things differently. What could you use in a different way to create something completely new?

Stepping sinuously and gracefully from shipyard to playground and on to Hollywood

Stepping sinuously and gracefully from shipyard to playground and on to Hollywood


During World War Two, Richard James worked as a naval mechanical engineer at the William Cramp & Sons shipyards in Philadelphia. In 1943, he was working on a design for a special meter to monitor the horsepower output on naval battleships. One of the challenges he faced was to ensure that this sensitive instrument was supported and could be stabilised even in the roughest seas.
James was looking at how a variety of springs could be used to help when he accidentally knocked one of them off a shelf. He watched as the spring “stepped” in a series of arcs to a stack of books, to a tabletop, and then to the floor, where it re-coiled itself and stood upright. James felt a sense of slight disbelief but also had the inkling of an idea.
James’ wife, Betty, later recalled, “He came home and said, ‘I think if I got the right property of steel and the right tension, I could make it walk.'”
James started experimenting with different types of steel wire, and after about a year finally found a spring that he felt could “walk”.
Betty, who was dubious at first, changed her mind after this version was given to some neighbourhood children who loved their new toy. She decided it needed a name and after a few hours with her trusty dictionary came upon “Slinky”, meaning sinuous and graceful, which she felt described the sound and movement of the metal spring as it expanded and compressed.
The couple decided to take out a US$500 loan and formed James Industries (originally James Spring & Wire Company). They had 400 Slinky units made by a local machine shop, hand wrapping each in yellow paper, and pricing them at $1 apiece. Each was 2 ½ ” tall, and included 98 coils of high-grade blue-black Swedish steel.
Initially, toy stores were sceptical but, in November 1945, James was given permission to set up an inclined plane in the toy section of Gimbels department store in Philadelphia to demonstrate the toy.
Those first 400 units were sold within ninety minutes.
In 1946, Slinky was introduced at the American Toy Fair. Between then and 2005 over 300 million Slinkys have been sold, and the original Slinky is still a bestseller.

In 1952, the Slinky Dog debuted. Other Slinky toys introduced in the 1950s included the Slinky train Loco, the Slinky worm Suzie, and the Slinky Crazy Eyes, a pair of glasses that uses Slinkys over the eyeholes attached to plastic eyeballs. Of these, it is perhaps the Slinky Dog that is the most famous, having appeared in all The Toy Story movies.

And the moral is that the difference between seeing something and seeing what it could be is the difference between an experience and a brand opportunity. What have you seen recently that could be the basis for a brand?

Go on, annoy your customers, it’s good for business, it’s good for the world

Go on, annoy your customers, it’s good for business, it’s good for the world

Tony’s Chocolonely goes out of its way to annoy some of its customers.

Most chocolate bars are divisible into equal parts. People like the uniformity. It is easy to break off equal parts for yourself or to ensure everyone get the same sized piece when you’re sharing a bar with friends. Some people like the fact that they know how much an individual piece of chocolate will weigh.

Yet in 2012 Tony’s Chocolonely, a Dutch based chocolate company, deliberately introduced their unequally divided bar.

Not surprisingly they got comments and complaints but the unequally divided bar continues. Tony’s isn’t being different just for the sake of being different, they are doing it for a reason. A reason linked to the very heart of their brand.

Tony’s is a brand with a mission. 

As their website explains they are “crazy about chocolate, serious about people – A 100% slave-free chocolate industry – that’s our goal. It’s the reason we created Tony’s Chocolonely. And it’s our mission to make other people as passionate about 100% slave-free chocolate as we are.”

Set up by Maurice Dekker, a TV producer and originally fronted by journalist Teun van de Keuken, it was the brand that arose out of their campaigning programmes. Programmes that highlighted the continuing child exploitation and even slavery in the chocolate industry in West Africa.


The first bars were part of a programme storyline with van de Keuken following the whole supply chain from bean to bar to demonstrate that a slave free chocolate bar could be made. The first batch sold out within an hour of coming onto the market so Dekker decided to start a company.

The brand name combines the Anglicised version of “Tuen” – Tony and his “lonely” search for slave free chocolate.

Another difference is their use of colour. Dekker recalls “How was I to know that red is the code for pure chocolate and blue is for milk? I was ignorant of the whole industry and red to me is a colour to raise awareness, a signal. And that’s what the first Tony’s Chocolonely’s milk chocolate bar was about. Raising the signal, the red flag” 

The unequally divided bar comes from the same sort of thinking. It is unequally divided as it represents the unequally divided chocolate industry. In fact if you look closely at the design you can see the outlines of the chocolate producing nations of West Africa – Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon.

Tony’s aim was to make its customers stop and think about the chocolate they were eating and to remember the unequal distribution on the chocolate making supply chain.

They are still getting complaints but rather than change they are just happy that they have a valid excuse to tell their story again.

And the moral is that you can build your brand right into your products. How can your product or service tell your story for you?


Napoleon, two Scottish Ministers and the birth of the Insurance Funds industry.

Napoleon, two Scottish Ministers and the birth of the Insurance Funds industry.

Napoleon is credited with many achievements, but most lists don’t include his contribution to the foundation of one of Britain’s most famous financial brands. 

On their website, Scottish Widows traces its origins back to March 1812, when a number of prominent Scotsmen gathered in the Royal Exchange Coffee Rooms in Edinburgh. It was a turbulent time for the UK with not only the Napoleonic wars but with war against the USA looming on the horizon.

The historic meeting was held to discuss the setting up of ‘a general fund for securing provisions to widows, sisters and other female relatives’ so that they would not be plunged into poverty on the death of the fund holders during and after the Napoleonic Wars. 

The discussions and planning took some time and it wasn’t until 1815, the year of Napoleon’s ultimate defeat at Waterloo, that the Scottish Widows Fund and Life Assurance Society opened its doors as Scotland’s first mutual life office.

There is however a story behind the story and how in fact the origins of the brand, and indeed the industry, can be traced even further back in history to two Church of Scotland ministers, who actually deserve the credit for inventing the first true insurance fund way back in 1744.


Robert Wallace and his friend Alexander Webster were not only ministers  but also men of vision.

The two ministers were unhappy at the way the women and children of their fellow clergymen were often treated when the men of their households died. They were generally left at the mercy of the fellow ministers, and despite relying on Christian benefactors, were often left homeless and without any income.

Wallace and Webster came up with an ingenious plan to curtail this problem, now recognised as the first true insurance fund in history. They proposed that each of their church’s ministers would pay a small portion of his income into a fund, which would then invest the money. Then, if a minister died, his widow would receive dividends from the fund’s profits. This would allow her to live comfortably for the rest of her life.

The key question was how much each minister would have to pay in so that the fund would have enough money to deliver on its obligations. Webster and Wallace realised that they had to be able to predict how many ministers would die every year, how many widows and orphans would be left behind, and how many years the widows would live on for.

Recognising their own limitations, they contacted Colin Maclaurin who was a professor of mathematics from the University of Edinburgh.

The three of them collected data on the ages at which ministers had died and used it to calculate how many  were likely to pass away in any given year.

The calculations they made concluded that there would be 930 living Scottish Presbyterian ministers at any given time and that an average of twenty-seven ministers would die each year, eighteen of whom would leave widows. Five of those who did not leave widows would however leave orphaned children and two of those survived by widows would also be out-lived by children from previous marriages who had not yet reached the age of sixteen. 

They then further calculated how long there would be before those widows either died or remarried, as both eventualities caused payments to cease.

The final calculations suggested that by contributing £2. 12s. 2d. a year they would guarantee widows would receive £10 a year (a living income in those days). With additional contributions, a minister could guarantee his widow would receive a greater sum each year.

The bottom line on all their calculations was that by 1765 the Fund for a Provision for the Widows and Children of the Ministers of the Church of Scotland should have capital totalling £58,348.  

Records show that actually the capital in 1765 was £58,347, just £1 out.

Footnote: The famous caped Scottish Widow didn’t appear as the brand’s icon until 1986 when she made her debut in a television advert directed by David Bailey. The ‘living logo’ was created to be an icon that confronted all the negative values associated with the word ‘widow’ and presented the positive values – strength, reliability, integrity, innovation and heritage. Her impact was immediate, Scottish Widows became a household name and ‘awareness’ increased from 34% to 92%


No ordinary whisky, no ordinary name

No ordinary whisky, no ordinary name

Monkey Shoulder is not your ordinary whisky.

It is described as having a taste like “riding bareback on the wild moors of Scotland with a flame haired maiden on Christmas morning” or “007 wearing a tuxedo wetsuit”. (I must admit the first description had me desperately wanting to try it while the second nearly put me off) 

Launched in 2005, it was the idea of the then malt master, David Stewart, who wanted to create the first ‘triple’ malt whisky. He combined three different Speyside Single Malts – Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie to delicious effect.

The name which, at first sounds extraordinary, has roots thath are actually a bit more ordinary.


Monkey shoulder is a slang term for a physical condition that afflicted a number of maltmen who used to work long shifts, turning the barley by hand using large wooden shovels. The long and arduous work had a tendency to cause their lead arm to hang down a bit like a monkey’s and people would refer to it as monkey shoulder.

William Grant who own and produce the brand are proud to say that their maltmen are among the few who still turn the barley manually but not surprisingly are equally quick to say that working conditions have changed and shifts are shorter and less ardous so monkey shoulder is no longer a problem.

The name is meant as an affectionate tribute “to honour the hard graft of all maltmen past and present’ 


What do consumers know anyway?

What do consumers know anyway?

Kerstin Robinson and Julia Kessler are friends, founders and have fire in their bellies…well chilli, at least.

Their brand of soft drinks, NIX&KIX promises “A little heat & a lot of happiness” and the special ingredient in each one is a little cayenne chilli.

They tell their tale of the origins of NIX&KIX on their web-site.

“The NIX&KIX story began 12 years ago after a chance encounter on a flight to London, when we made the decision to relocate to the UK. Following this fortuitous meeting, we enjoyed a long stint in the corporate world, all while experiencing the London nightlife to the fullest.

The pivotal moment came when we both realised that we had reached a point at which nights out fuelled by Vodka Red Bulls would no longer do. Instead, we wanted to enjoy ourselves without necessarily drinking alcohol every time. Along with this realisation, we also noticed a change in our taste buds, as we started to find the soft drinks available either too sugary or bland. This led us to set up a lab at the back of a small shop in Shoreditch, where we began experimenting with different drink combinations, involving customers to the shop, as well as the owners and their extended families.

Our product range is centered around chilli, and with good reason. Chilli was the one ingredient that just about everyone gets incredibly excited about. Additionally, we managed to develop the drinks such that the flavour from the fruit comes through first, with the kick from the cayenne chilli only setting in after a couple of seconds. The end product is a one-of-a-kind flavour experience that you are quite unlikely to find elsewhere.”

I recently had the pleasure of sharing a stage with Kerstin when she was a panellist at The Value Engineers’ “Think Small” conference and I was MC. Asking her about the challenges of being a small brand, she told us about their early struggles and just how important it was that they stuck to their original aims.

 “If we’d asked consumers at the very start of the business ‘what do you want’, we would have probably ended up with another J2O or something like that just because the consumer only knows what they know. They cannot think beyond that. If they aren’t used to it, it doesn’t make sense for them. 

So at the beginning we had a lot of people saying ‘oh, these drinks, they are not sweet enough, we want them sweeter’ and had we done that we would have ended up with a completely different product and a completely different proposition. 

That’s exactly why it was so important to just go with our vision, and our vision was to create a product that was not as sweet and then add something else to make it exciting and let people try it. People would then understand what the product is and yes, it’s not for everyone but now we have a lot of people that love it and that’s what we are, that’s why we are doing it”

Whether she meant to or not what struck me was how closely what Kerstin said mirrored the famous Steve Jobs’ quote –“People don’t know what they want till you give it to them”.

Now it just remains to be seen if the pair can turn their vision into a really successful brand and prove once again that not all brands are consumer-led but can instead start with a vision or an idea.

Footnote : The drinks are pretty damn good too and I’m glad to say the fiery, founding friends haven’t given up on alcohol completely yet as they say on their website “While the drinks are best enjoyed cooled on their own with a wedge of lime, they are also very versatile and lend themselves easily as mixers with alcohol. Our favourite combinations include our Mango & Ginger with dark rum, Cucumber & Mint with gin and Peach & Vanilla with Bourbon.”


How a standard lamp inspired one of the fastest growing on-line fashion brands.

How a standard lamp inspired one of the fastest growing on-line fashion brands.

Inspiration, like fashion, comes in all shapes and sizes.

The inspiration for the hugely successful on-line fashion brand, ASOS, came from a standard lamp, or more specifically from the statistics about a particular standard lamp. Co-founder Nick Robertson remembers that he and his partner Quentin Griffiths “read a stat back in 1999 that when the programme Friends aired, NBC got 4,000 calls about some standard lamp in one of their apartments asking where it could be purchased. So that was the real idea behind the business”.

The reasoning behind the brand was a logical development from this; “Anything that gets exposure in a film or TV programme creates desire among the public, so we based the shop around that.” 

Their choice of brand name for their launch in June 2000 followed naturally – As Seen On Screen.

Initially the focus wasn’t just on fashion but that changed with one of their earliest hires, Lorri Penn, whom they headhunted from Arcadia – Sir Philip Green’s retail group, which includes Topshop and Dorothy Perkins. 


“It wasn’t until our first buyer came in, who was a fashion buyer, that we were pushed in that direction”, Nick says. “Fashion is where we got the most returns for the business. Rather than saying ‘here’s a standard top’, we could say ‘here’s a top that Jennifer Aniston wore in Friends’.”Penn argued that fashion was the way forward.

The founders agreed to back her judgement and focused in on fashion, moving As Seen On Screen from a website for all celebrity-linked products to fashion only.

Sales have grown from £250,000 to over £200m. From a handful of employees it now has over 1,000  and the range of products on its site, though all fashion related, still runs to over 35,000.

 Another change is that where once ASOS followed, now it leads. From merely replicating celebrity fashion, it has come so far that it is now helping set celebrity fashion trends. ASOS own-label creations are now worn by celebrities from Rihanna to Kate Hudson.


The bank that likes to say NO

The bank that likes to say NO

ING Direct (USA) was launched in September 2000. From the start it liked to do things differently.

“One way or another, most financial companies are telling you to spend more. We’re showing you how to save more,” said original CEO Arkadi Kuhlmann.

ING is an Internet-based savings bank, dealing directly with its customers. It has only a limited number of easy-to-understand products. It prides itself on speed, simplicity and low overheads. It claims to be the bank for the people on “Main Street, not Wall Street”.

But it says no to what a lot of other banks like to say yes to.

There are NO minimum deposits and NO customers’ fees.

It has NO ATMs, NO branches, NO advisors (it’s an Internet, virtually paperless organization). 

It doesn’t market checking accounts or auto loans. Not only does it not market credit cards, ING openly campaigns against them

“If you’re truly committed to helping people change their financial lives and to doing it step by step, then you should not encourage them to do things that could lead them to lose money,” says Chief Customer Service Officer Jim Kelly.


In one famous instance, ING turned down a wealthy potential customer who wanted to deposit $5 million with the bank. It was nothing personal, it said, but: “Rich Americans are used to platinum cards, special service – the last thing we want in this bank is to have rich people making special demands. We treat everyone the same.”

The business also “fires” around 3,500 customers a year who don’t play by their rules – making too many calls to customer service, or asking for too many exceptions to procedures.

ING expects and accepts the consequences: “The customers who are right for you, they have you. They become evangelists. The customers who close out, they hate you.

But you know what they do when they hate you? They tell everyone about you – and that’s good. It creates dialogue. There’s nothing like differentiation,” says Kuhlmann.

The result of their approach? By 2004, the business was making a pre-tax profit of $250 million per annum.

And the moral is that it can pay to say NO..


The brand is mightier than the business

The brand is mightier than the business

Can you be a great brand but a bad business proposition?

There is much talk today about the business being the brand and the brand being the business, but for me these are not exactly the same thing. Rather they are the yin and the yang of an organisation and the story of the Blackwing 602 highlights that there is a difference.

Introduced by the Eberhard Faber Company during the Great Depression, the Blackwing 602 had a graphite-grey lacquer finish, a distinctive shape, an iconic foil-stamped logo, and an adjustable eraser housed in an extended ferrule. The pencils initially sold for 50 cents each.

Now, it wasn’t only what the pencilt looked like that really made it different. It was also what was on the inside and how that affected its performance in use. The Blackwing had an unusually smooth, soft-yet-durable lead, which allowed Faber to claim: “Half The Pressure, Twice The Speed.”

The Blackwing 602 has a devoted following and a cult-like status. It had a list of celebrity endorsements any brand would be proud of including Nobelprize-winning authors, Oscar-winning animators and Grammy-winning songwriters. 



“I have found a new kind of pencil—the best I have ever had. Of course, it costs three times as much too but it is black and soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper,” said John Steinbeck talking about his working habits in the Paris Review.



Asked in an interview with the Academy of Achievement in 2005 whether he used any special kind of paper or pencils, Stephen Sondheim replied; “I use Blackwing pencils. They don’t make ‘em any more, and luckily, I bought a lot of boxes of ‘em. They’re very soft lead. They’re not round, so they don’t fall off the table, and they have removable erasers, which unfortunately dry out.”



During a television interview with Charlie Rose, legendary animator Chuck Jones of Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters was asked about the “pen” he was using. Jones gently corrected him and then added: “A pen is full of ink. This [Blackwing] is full of ideas”.

Despite this following of famous people and thousands of other users, the Blackwing was discontinued in 1998.


The problem stemmed from one of those distinctive features – the extended eraser ferrule. It required special clips that were only produced on a custom-made machine. When Eberhard Faber was acquired and became part of Faber-Castell in 1994, they discovered that the machine was broken.

There were however sufficient clips that enabled production to continue until 1998. At this point, the company withdrew the Blackwing, claiming it was not commercially viable.

There was an immediate outcry and the pencils still in the supply chain were quickly boughtup and stockpiled. They began to appear on eBay and in the classified ads and prices skyrocketed up to $55 for a single pencil. 

Other fans started looking for alternatives and interest focused on the Palomino’s range of premium pencils, which many felt provided a comparable performance to the Blackwing. Palomino were soon  being asked to consider reviving the iconic brand, reviving the old unique look. Luckily Palomino founder and CEO, Charles Berolzheimer, whose family’s roots in the pencil industry date back to the mid 19th century, was able to use his unique supply relationships to get permission to re-introduce the Blackwing pencil. They introduced their new Blackwing both in its original form (the “602”) for true devotees, writers and everyday users, as well as a slightly modified version with a slightly softer lead for artists. The new “Palomino Blackwing 602” sold in packets of 12 for about $20.

So perhaps the moral of this story is that the brand is mightier than the business.


R A L S B E B C = 14 (at least)

R A L S B E B C = 14 (at least)

America’s Great Depression caused untold misery but the necessity of trying to feed your family drove people on. I have already written the tale of how Charles Darrow developed what was to become Monopoly after losing his job at a sales company. However, he was not the only person for whom necessity was the mother of invention.

In 1933, Alfred Mosher Butts lost his job as an architect and decided to try his hand at developing a board game.

He set about it methodologically and while he might not have known it, he followed many of the principles of best practice in innovation – analyse the market, identify the best opportunity area, develop something new that fits into that space, prototype it and test it.

He began by analysing the set of current board games. Sitting in his apartment in Queens, New York City, he determined that there were three broad types of game – move games like chess, number games such as bingo, and word games, of which he could think of just one example, Anagrams.

Having identified word games as his opportunity area, he decided he wanted to create a game that combined the vocabulary skills of crossword puzzles and anagrams, with an additional element of chance. 

He analysed the front pages from a number of papers including the New York Herald, to assess the frequency with which each letter in the alphabet appeared. He then used this information to help him decide how many tiles a letter should appear on and how many points it ought to worth.

The game, which Butts originally called Lexico, was the result. In its first few years, it was in fact to go under a variety of different names including ‘It’ and ‘Criss-Cross words’.

The first prototypes had boards that were hand drawn using Butts’ architectural drafting equipment, reproduced by blueprinting and pasting on folding checkerboards. The tiles were also hand-lettered, then glued to quarter-inch balsa and cut to match the squares on the board.

His wife Ninawas an ex-schoolteacher and his first guinea pig.  She beat  Alfred at his own game – he claimed he was never any good at spelling.  It has been reported that Nina once notched up nearly 300 points using the word ‘quixotic’ across two triple-word scores.

Soon the couple were gathering friends and neighbours to play in the hall of the local Methodist church but the game stubbornly remained a  local hit. 

By mid-1934, Butts had sold just 84 handmade sets at a loss of $20. Every major games’ manufacturer turned it down, and his application for a patent met the same fate. 

Luckily for Butts, the economy began to pick up and he was able to resume his old job at the architectural firm.


He and his friends still continued to play the game and sold a few sets over the years.

One was bought by James Brunot  who, when he retired from his day job in 1948, approached Butts with an offer to make and sell the game. Butts agreed.

Brunot came up with a new name, ‘Scrabble’, and lodged a successful copyright application.

Unfortunately the game was not an immediate success. In 1949, Brunot made 2,400 sets and lost $450.

Over the next 2-3 years the brand grew, but only slowly.

Then and not in any marketing textbook??, the brand had a stroke of luck. In 1952, the president of Macy’s department store happened to see a Scrabble game in progress while holidaying in Florida. He liked what he saw and decided to stock some in his store. 

The game took off almost immediately and Macy’s was soon selling 6,000 sets a week. 

By 1952, Brunot realised he could not make the games fast enough to meet the growing interest, so licensed a well-known game manufacturer, Selchow & Righter, to market and distribute them in the United States and Canada.

In 1972, Selchow & Righter bought Brunot out. Brunot received $1.3 million and Butts got $265,000. 

Today, more than 150 million Scrabble sets have been sold in 29 languages. Scrabble has become a cultural icon, appearing in episodes of Seinfeld and The Simpsons, and in lyrics sung by Kylie Minogue and Sting. 


Footnote 1: Butts used some of his earnings to buy the farmhouse in upstate New York where he had grown up, and there, while in his late seventies, he created a second game. It too was a word game. His choice of name however showed that he had more to learn as an innovator. He called his new invention – Alfred’s Other Game.


Footnote 2: Butts was a resident of Jackson Heights, New York, when he invented the Scrabble. There is now a special street sign at 35th Avenue and 81st Street in Jackson Heights that is stylised using letters, with their values in Scrabble as a subscript to commemorate the association.