Imagine a young executive walking into a boardroom with this pitch: “I have an idea. This is brilliant. We’re going to sell black tea but – and this is where it gets good – we’re going to include small porcelain animal figurines in each box.”
It must have seemed silly. Three-hundred million figurines and a legion of collectors later, it looks brilliant.
In 1967, Brooke Bond Foods, the then-parent company of Red Rose Tea, contracted with George Wade and Son Ltd., a British ceramics manufacturer with roots dating back to 1867, to produce a line of miniatures to be included in specially marked boxes of Red Rose Tea in certain parts of Canada. The original 32 miniatures — known as “Whimsies” — were comprised of an assortment of animals. The company was pleased with the results, and launched a similar promotion in 1970, this time targeting the British market. In 1983, the company started including the miniatures in tea sold in the United States. In all, there have been a total of 206 different Whimsies issued by Wade for Red Rose Tea promotions.
Seth Godin, the New York Times bestselling marketing expert behind books such as “All Marketers Are Liars,” says that the combination of figurines and Red Rose Tea actually makes some sense. “There’s probably a very high overlap between people with an affinity for a traditional tea and people with an affinity for that sort of gewgaw,” he says. The nostalgic appeal of quaint miniatures is a good fit with old-fashioned tea.
|The Ark display and a selection of figurines from the Noah’s Ark series Red Rose Tea promotion No. 3, 2002-2006.|
Michele Peters, a brand manager at Redco Foods, the parent company of Red Rose, says the figurines have been instrumental in the company’s success. “The great thing about our Red Rose tea brand is that many of our consumers have been drinking it since they were children and have fond memories of the brand. That is where the figurines come into play,” she says.
“We do typically see a spike in sales when we launch a new figurine series, which is about every 3 years or so,” she added. Collectors of Wade Whimsies congregate on sites like the Wade Whimsies group on Yahoo! (visit WadeWhimsies.com for more information) and there’s also the Official International Wade Collectors Club (WadeCollectorsClub.co.uk).
Ian Warner, a long-time collector and co-author of The World of Wade Figurines and Miniatures II which was released in March, says that in the early days of the promotion, quality control was virtually nonexistent. “Many figurines came from the pottery with flaws or even broken but with a glaze over the broken area,” he says. “Collectors are only interested in figurines without flaws, cracks etc. which makes it more interesting for collectors to hunt down the more “perfect” pieces. Many figurines came from the pottery with slightly differing decorations as the early figurines were hand-painted. These variations are very collectible and highly sought after by collectors.”
In recent years, says Warner, the variations in Whimsies have actually increased because of a change in the method of production. “For many years the figurines were produced using hand-crafted steel forms or molds. Each mold could produce up to 30,000 figurines before being discarded or remade,” he says. “Starting with the Pet Shop series [in 2006], Wade started to use a new method of production called ‘solid casting.’ Only about thirty figurines could be produced from a mold so many molds had to be made. This has caused a large number of size and mold variations.”
More than 40 years into the marketing campaign, the mass-produced Red Rose Whimsies aren’t exactly high-priced collectibles; but they do seem to garner consistent bids on eBay. [Click here for a listing of Wade Whimsies offered on eBay] Of the 50 most recently closed eBay listing, 30 attracted bidders. A scarecrow figurine that was part of the 2010 series recently sold for $1.99 plus $2.95 for shipping – that’s less than the cost of the box of one hundred tea bags that the miniature was sold in less than a year ago. That complete series – with 12 figurines each representing one month of the year – recently sold for $28.79. A lot of 152 of the miniatures recently garnered 12 bids on its way to a hammer price of $96. A complete set of 24 miniatures in the Nursery Rhyme series – issued from 1972-1979 – sold for $80.20 with 11 bids. The 15 Whimsies from the Noah’s Ark series, which ran from 2002 to 2006, recently sold for $26.52.
Wade figurines also have a long history outside of their association with Red Rose Tea. Wade first began manufacturing Whimsies in 1953 and had been producing other figurines since the 1930s. Some of these early figurines fetch prices many times that of the most valuable Red Rose figurines. A figurine of Jonah and the Whale – from a series produced from 1955 to 1960 – recently sold on eBay for 870.89 GBP ($1,398.56). A 1930s figurine depicting Pluto, produced under a licensing agreement with Disney, sold for $251.50.
Collectors of Wade Whimsies, like collectors of anything, come armed with a story for how they got involved. Penelope Kabisch-Horn, a senior citizen living in Connecticut, lived in England as a child while her father was stationed there. Her mother began collecting Wade products then and when they moved back to the United States, she started collecting the Wade Whimsies that came in boxes of Red Rose Tea. When Kabisch-Horn’s mother passed away in 2004, she took over her collection and began adding to it aggressively. She now has more than 3,000 Wade pieces and while she guesses the collection is valued in the thousands, it’s priceless to her.
“When I look at certain pieces I see mum or England or have happy family memories,” she says. “I have written down in a will what is to happen to my Wades when I pass so that others in my family may enjoy them.”
Zac Bissonnette is the author of Debt-Free U: How I Paid For an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents and has appeared on The Today Show and CNN. Everything he knows about money was learned yard saling with his mother.
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