Tupperware: How a plastic bowl with a 'burp seal' gave women a means to an income
Tupperware, an iconic brand that’s woven into the fabric of post World War II America, signaled this week that it could be on its last gasp.
Known the world over for its plastic food storage containers and its sales parties, Florida-based Tupperware warned that the company was running out of cash and needed additional money – soon – to say in operation.
In some ways, the 77-year-old brand is still a titan: It’s, literally, a household name, and its vivid juice- and fruit-colored products are for sale in nearly 70 countries. It pulled in annual sales of $1.3 billion in 2021. But that’s down 18.7% from a year ago.
Last October, in a massive shift in its business model, Tupperware rolled out its containers in brighter hues of red, purple and green onto Target shelves nationwide.
But it may be too little, too late.
Experts say this is what happens when a once-pioneering brand, beloved by families through generations, is unable to adapt to an evolving marketplace, brutal competition and attitudes and needs of younger consumers.
“Tupperware was a disruptor in the market and in households nationwide when its plastic storage containers launched in 1946,” said Ventakesh Shankar, professor of marketing and ecommerce at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School.
“The company also had tremendous cultural impact. The famous neighborhood house parties where Tupperware products were sold by the host to her family and friends was a new way of marketing, combining socializing with direct sales.”
But while the company reaped the benefits of its innovative approach for years, it ultimately couldn’t keep pace with changing times.
History has shown, said Shankar, that nostalgia usually isn’t enough to sustain legacy brands.
Whether or not Tupperware survives as a business, its rich history will likely endure, said William Keep, professor of marketing at the College of New Jersey School of Business.
“I’ve been married for 50 years and we still have and use our Tupperware from when we married. Tupperware was something people gave as gifts at weddings and baby showers,” said Keep. “Clearly its a brand that focused on two things, quality and for much of its history, women.”
Tupperware is named after Earl Tupper, a chemist in the 1940s who created lightweight, non-breakable plastic containers inspired by the seal-tight design of paint cans. The purpose was to help families save money on costly food waste in the post-war era.
The most significant aspect of the invention was a first-of-its-kind “burping seal.” The older models of Tupperware containers would make a burp-like sound when air was let out from under the lid before it was firmly pressed and closed for an air-tight lock.
But Tupperware products didn’t sell well in stores when they launched, according to the company, because consumers weren’t sure how to use the (back then) white and off-white containers.
That conundrum led to an idea to demonstrate the product, which then evolved into the famous Tupperware house parties.
The practice dove-tailed brilliantly with the rise of post-war suburbia: women had bigger homes, bigger kitchens, more money to spend, more children to feed and more responsibilities to keep house.
Into that climate came Tupperware. Its first milky-white plastic product, the “Wonder Bowl,” cost 39 cents, according to Smithsonian Magazine; the museum has a huge Tupperware collection. Over the years, tangerine orange, baby blue and pink and kiwi green products followed.
Tupperware parties became popular social and marketing events in the 1950s and 60s.
The parties were much more than just a show-and-tell, said Bob Kealing, a Tupperware scholar and author of two books on the brand.
These were glamorous affairs, akin to an afternoon tea party, where women dressed up because the parties were a feminized, soft-sell approach to selling plastic products.
“Women wore beautiful dresses, heels, gloves. They wanted to present an upscale version of themselves because these were also events where women were recruited into the Tupperware sales force,” he said. The parties gained traction also because they were one of the few socially acceptable ways for women to make money at the time.
Tupperware products were the centerpiece of the event, carefully stacked and presented to be shown off. “The parties were designed to be fun social gatherings,” including games and prizes, he said, and the most successful Tupperware saleswomen were sometimes rewarded with diamond rings.
While Tupperware wasn’t the first to pioneer the direct sales model, it did scale it up in size and opportunity for women, said Tracey Deutsch, associate professor, department of history of history at University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts.
Tupperware’s success, said Deutsch also coincided with the expansion of suburbs across the country.
“Not only did women need the space to hold the Tupperware parties but also space in the kitchen to store these containers,” she said. “And it was also dependent on a certain level of household well-being. You needed to have enough food to require these storage containers.”
Brownie Wise was perhaps the most famous Tupperware hostess of them all. Wise, a divorced single mother living in Florida, held her own Tupperware parties in the 1940s and 50s and became a budding entrepreneur. Tupper himself took notice.
He eventually hired Wise as his vice president of marketing, an unprecedented role for women back then.
Kealing, author of “”Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Part Empire,” said Wise became the face of the brand and was very good at it.
“It was great marketing and the media ate it up,” he said. But she was ultimately fired by Tupper in 1957. “Tupper… saw how the brand was becoming more about her,” said Kealing.
Traditionally, parties were the only way you could buy Tupperware. Over time, the parties became ubiquitous both in suburban and city dwellings. As the company grew, its fleet of hostesses ballooned into a global direct sales force of nearly 3 million in 2019.
More recently, the brand was on a quest to grab the attention of Millennials and Gen Zers and become as relevant in their everyday lives as it was for their grandmas and moms.
That meant shedding the throwback to its “Mad Men” era image, and positioning Tupperware products as buzz-worthy, higher quality and more durable than rivals, high-utility and with an environmentally-friendly purpose.
Tupperware had to go beyond parties or sales on its own website and the brief and limited pilot programs it had tried with retailers HomeGoods, Bed Bath and Beyond, plus an earlier pilot attempt at Target itself.
The shift in strategy came too late. “We’ve seen this happen with Toys ‘R’ Us, Twinkie, most recently Bed Bath & Beyond,” said Shankar.
Tupperware, he said, is facing a perfect storm of stiff competition from other brands – Rubbermaid, Glad, Pyrex, Oxo and Ziploc – selling similar products or even disposable versions for less, lack of interest from younger shoppers and lack of exciting new products and strategies to sell them.
“Millennials, and Gen Zers especially probably aren’t aware of its iconic status and really don’t have a reason to give it another chance,” said Shankar.
“In my mind, the company made two critical errors,” said Keep, professor of marketing at the College of New Jersey School of Business.
“With product, it lost ground to competitors”, said Keep. “Tupperware also consciously didn’t walk away from direct selling even as these multilevel marketing strategies stagnated in the 80s and 90s. When it was clear that model was no longer working, the company should have given up on direct sales and sold through retailers.”
Bankruptcy could be a path forward for Tupperware, said JohnTalbott, Director at the Center for Education and Research in Retail at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.
“The most valuable thing Tupperware owns is its brand. Like Blockbuster, the Tupperware brand will never go away,” he said. “I suspect it could file for bankruptcy and if there is a buyer for it, Target would be a great option to revive the brand with new designs and a new marketing plan.”