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Brand fail births beloved family movie

Nearly 50 years ago this week, production ended on a movie that would become part of the biggest fail in branded content history. It would also become a beloved, family favorite.

It’s 1970. Quaker Oats wants to get into the candy business. And film director Mel Stuart wants to appease his young daughter, Madeline. She had just read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and insists he should make it his next movie. So, Stuart pitches the idea to producer David L. Wolper. In Hollywood, timing is everything. The legendary producer had recently started work on a separate project for Quaker Oats.

Quaker Oats agrees to finance the $3M movie. However, they insist Wonka’s name become part of the title so they could promote their new candy bars. (Talk about product integration). Who knew the delightful, family-favorite movie started not as pure imagination, but as pure commercialism?

On November 19, 1970, producers finished filming Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in Munich, Germany. Unfortunately, Quaker Oats hadn’t finished a workable recipe for the signature Wonka bar featured in the movie. It melted too easily. They flailed. By the movie’s release, Quaker abandoned the idea of selling a Wonka Bar. Later that year Quaker did manage to create a “Wonka Bar Kit” for kids to make their own bars – chocolate not included!

Without a big marketing campaign tie-in, the movie underwhelmed at the box office. The pandemonium over the Wonka Bar in the movie never happened in real life. By the mid-70’s, Quaker Oats sold the movie rights to Warner Bros. and got out of the movie business. Their candy business limped along. They did make an Everlasting Gobstopper. But eventually they sold the candy business, too.

The whole affair looked to be a failure.

You can imagine the Oompa Loompas singing: “Oompa loompa doompety da... If you're not greedy, you will go far...”

Slowly, against the odds, the film grew in popularity. With repeat showings on TV and VHS, the movie took off. Looking to cash in, Nestle acquired the candy company and started pumping out all sorts of candy under the Willy Wonka Brand. Fun Dip, Spree, Runts, and Nerds. Bottle Caps, SweeTarts, and Laffy Taffy. All became money-makers under the Wonka banner. For Nestle. Not Quaker Oats.

The Wonka Brand finally found success not because of the candy, but because of the nostalgic passion for a movie. A big, brand movie. Recently, Ferrara took ownership of the Wonka brand and unfortunately discontinued the brand entirely. The Willy Wonka company is no more.

Yet the Willy Wonka movie lives on. The original, preserved in the National Film Registry for it “being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” inspired a version starring Johnny Depp. And Timothy Chalamet will play Wonka in a 2023 version.

What’s the moral of this story for brand content creators? Great branded content resonates and succeeds in spite of the brand, not because of it. The movie endures due to the story and the characters. The underdog Charlie and his Grandpa. And yes, Wonka. That’s what keeps the movie alive and special.

photo credits: Oompa Loompas with Willy Wonka: United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo; Willy Wonka: Allstar Picture Library Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo; Charlie: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

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