Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Boston Delight #3 (c1870): Union Oyster House is First Guerrilla Marketing Target.

Howdy from Boston. Somewhere back five or six years ago I heard from colleagues at Ware Anthony Rust in the UK that they were introducing a revolutionary new robotic vacuum cleaner called the “Trilobite.” My specific recollection is about a guerrilla marketing event in which pairs of young women in pubs throughout England get into a mock argument about the Trilobite and end up demonstrating it – in the bar, in front of all the patrons. This was far enough back that this kind of marketing tactic was new to me. I thought, that’s damned clever. And a great example of a new 21st Century social sales technique. This was before I realized this idea had been used before.

I just didn’t understand just how much before until today when I was lunching in the Union Oyster House here in Boston. It turns out that the mass-produced toothpick was first used in America at this same Union Oyster House. (There’s a sign on the restaurant wall that proclaims it.)

Charles Forster of Maine had first imported these toothpicks from South America. And in fact, Foster is credited with the development of the world’s first toothpick-manufacturing machine, around 1869. It’s more than simply a point of interest that Foster was not an inventor. He was an entrepreneur with an idea and some real live marketing smarts. But he couldn’t get his new toothpicks into retail outlets because people were too used to carving their own out of whatever was convenient.

So to promote his new business he hired Harvard boys (Harvard boys!) to dine at the Union Oyster House and ask for toothpicks. This they relentlessly did until the restaurant owner sensed there was something he was missing – and started ordering supplies of the new-fangled toothpicks from Forster. It began a social phenomenon that was adopted by both men and women.

Today, Forster’s mass-produced toothpick is held up as a model of the remarkable American “can do anything” spirit. In fact, it’s Forster’s home state of Maine that is the country’s biggest toothpick producer; about 90% of the country's toothpicks are made in this state.

I’m just as glad to be reminded that there’s little that’s new under the sun in terms of marketing and advertising – except maybe Facebook and YouTube. Forster would have found a way to make these work for him too.

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