Tupperware: How a plastic bowl with a ‘burping seal’ gave women a means of income

New York (CNN) Tupperware, an iconic brand woven into the fabric of post-World War II America, signaled this week that it could be on its last gasp.

Florida-based Tupperware, known worldwide for its plastic containers for food storage and sales parties, warned that the company was running out of cash and needed additional money – soon – to operate.

In some ways, the 77-year-old brand is still a titan: It’s literally a household name, and its vibrant juice and fruit-colored products are sold in nearly 70 countries. It pulled in annual sales of $1[ads1].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 on Target shelves across the country.

But it may be too little, too late.

Experts say this is what happens when a once pioneering brand, beloved by families for generations, fails to adapt to an evolving marketplace, brutal competition and the attitudes and needs of younger consumers.

“Tupperware was a disruption in the marketplace and in households across the country when the plastic containers were introduced in 1946,” said Venkatesh Shankar, professor of marketing and e-commerce at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School.

“The company also had a huge cultural impact. The famous neighborhood parties where Tupperware products were sold by the host to her family and friends were a new way of marketing, combining social gatherings with direct selling.”

These tupperware containers, manufactured in the 1980s, represent designs from the 1960s.

But while the company reaped the benefits of its innovative approach for years, it ultimately failed to keep pace with changing times.

History has shown, Shankar said, that nostalgia is usually not enough to sustain legacy brands.

Whether or not Tupperware survives as a business, its rich history will likely endure, said William Keep, a professor of marketing at the College of New Jersey School of Business.

“I’ve been married for 50 years and we still use Tupperware from when we got married. Tupperware was something that people gave as gifts at weddings and baby showers,” Keep said. “Obviously it’s a brand that focused on two things, quality and for much of its history, women.”

Fight against food waste

Tupperware is named after Earl Tupper, a chemist in the 1940s who created lightweight, unbreakable plastic containers inspired by the tight design of paint cans. The purpose was to help families save money on costly food waste in the post-war period.

The most significant aspect of the invention was a first of its kind “rape seal”. The older models of Tupperware containers would make a burp-like sound when air was released from under the lid before it was pressed down and closed for an airtight seal.

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 (then) white and off-white containers.

Tupperware house parties were the only way to buy the brand’s plastic food containers. Hosted by women in their homes, the parties were both popular social and marketing events. (circa 1950)

That conundrum led to an idea to demonstrate the product, which then evolved into the famous Tupperware house parties.

The practice followed brilliantly with the rise of the post-war suburbs: women had bigger homes, bigger kitchens, more money to spend, more children to feed and more responsibility for keeping house.

Into that climate came Tupperware. The 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 stereotyped women as much as it empowered them

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 Fellow and author of two books about the brand.

These were glamorous affairs, akin to onen 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 exclusive 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 women could earn money at the time.

Tupperware products were the centerpiece of the event, carefully stacked and presented to be displayed. “The parties were designed to be fun social gatherings,” including games and prizes, he said, and the most successful Tupperware salespeople were sometimes rewarded with diamond rings.

The rise of suburbia

While Tupperware wasn’t the first to pioneer the direct-sales model, it scaled it up in size and opportunity for women, said Tracey Deutsch, associate professor, department of history at the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts.

Tupperware’s success, Deutsch said, also coincided with the expansion of suburbs across the country.

Earl Tupper, pictured here, hired Brownie Wise, a Tupperware house party hostess, as his vice president of marketing in 1951.

“Not only did women need space to hold the Tupperware parties, but also space in the kitchen to store these containers,” she said. “And it also depended on a certain level of well-being in the home. 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, threw her own Tupperware parties in the 1940s and ’50s and became a budding entrepreneur. Tupper himself noticed it.

He eventually hired Wise as his vice president of marketing, an unprecedented role for women at the time.

A famous Tupperware lady

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 eventually fired by Tupper in 1957. “Tupper … saw how the brand became more about her,” Kealing said.

Traditionally, parties were the only way you could buy Tupperware. Over time, the parties became ubiquitous in both suburban and city housing. As the company grew, its fleet of hostesses grew to a global direct sales force of nearly 3 million in 2019.

More recently, the brand was on a quest to capture the attention of Millennials and Gen Zers and become as relevant in their everyday lives as it was to their grandmothers and mothers.

Paying homage to the Mad Men era

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 eco-friendly purpose.

Tupperware had to go beyond parties or sales on its own website and the short and limited pilots it had tried with retailers HomeGoods, Bed Bath and Beyond, plus an earlier pilot at Target itself.

Tupperware rolled its products into Target stores nationwide in 2022, marking a significant shift in the company’s decades-long direct sales strategy.

The change in strategy came too late. “We’ve seen this happen with Toys ‘R’ Us, Twinkie, most recently Bed Bath & Beyond,” Shankar said.

Tupperware, he said, faces a perfect storm of stiff competition from other brands — Rubbermaid, Glad, Pyrex, Oxo and Ziploc — selling similar products or even disposable versions for less, a lack of interest from younger customers and a lack of exciting new products and strategies for selling them.

“Millennials, and Gen Zers probably aren’t aware of its iconic status and really have no reason to give it a second chance,” Shankar said.

What went wrong?

“In my mind, the company made two critical mistakes,” said Keep, a professor of marketing at the College of New Jersey School of Business.

“With the product, it lost ground to the competition”, said Keep. “Nor did Tupperware consciously move away from direct sales, although these multi-level marketing strategies stagnated in the 80s and 90s. When it was clear that the model no longer worked, the company should have given up direct sales and sold through retailers.”

Bankruptcy could be a way forward for Tupperware, said John Talbott, director of the Center for Education and Research in Retail at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

“The most valuable thing Tupperware owns is the brand. Like Blockbuster, the Tupperware brand will never go away,” he said. “I suspect it may 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.”

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