Wrigley Wiggles: Zigzagging to Creativity

The Wrigley company didn’t start out making chewing gum. It’s a classic story of zigging and zagging to creative success. Here are just a few of the zigs and zags that led to their famous gum:

  • Founder William Wrigley opened a soap company in Philadelphia to sell Wrigley’s Scouring Soap.
  • In 1891 at age 30, his son William Wrigley Jr. opened a branch of the company in Chicago.
  • To help boost sales, each time you bought soap, he gave you a free sample of baking powder.
  • Surprise! People liked the baking soda so much that he pivoted the company and started selling baking powder instead of soap.
  • Again, he decided to boost sales by adding a free gift. When you bought the baking soda, you got two free packs of chewing gum.
  • Surprise! The gum was so popular that in 1893–only two years after arriving in Chicago–gum became the company’s main product, including the brands Juicy Fruit and Wrigley’s Spearmint. You can still find these today almost everywhere.

I read this story in the Wall Street Journal, in a fun article by Gregg Opelka. The story called to me because in my studies of innovation, I see zigging and zagging everywhere. That’s why I called my 2013 book Zag Zag! Here are just a few of the improvised, iterative, wandering stories that I love to tell (you’ll find these stories in my book):

  • Pixar’s Toy Story
  • Instagram
  • Starbucks
  • Text messaging
  • The song “Happy Birthday”

Entrepreneurs often call these wiggles pivots; Gregg Opelka calls them detours. But whatever you call it, it’s the real path to creative success. Creativity is never a straight linear path from idea to execution. As Opelka says,

Many great American companies that took sharp detours to survive ended up flourishing in unforeseen and spectacular ways. The detour turned out to the best part of the journey. Side roads always offer the prettiest scenery.

Wall Street Journal, “When product lines take a sharp turn,” Tuesday May 19, 2022, page A17

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