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date: 29 January 2023

British entrepreneurs and brand namesfree

British entrepreneurs and brand namesfree

  • T. A. B. Corley

Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795)

by George Stubbs, 1780

Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the entrepreneur is 'one who owns and manages a business'. For many economists, that definition does not adequately capture the unique role of entrepreneurship: that of creating an entirely new product or service. There is then the task of persuading people to buy, through publicity that strives to differentiate a product or service from all others, usually by choosing a brand or trade name that penetrates into consumers' consciousness. Thus Wills's cheap Woodbine cigarette was invented in 1888 by William Henry Wills and George Alfred Wills. That brand was the favourite smoke of soldiers in the First World War, so that Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, a chaplain who brought succour to troops at the front by handing out boxes of fags, became celebrated as Woodbine Willie.

To begin with some service industries, the firm of Joe Lyons was famous in the twentieth century for its teashops, and most prominently for its Corner Houses in London—cited in the OED—where ordinary folk could eat in opulent surroundings at reasonable prices, thanks to meticulous planning and efficient service tendered by brisk waitresses known as Nippies (OED). The company's founder, Joseph Lyons, was in reality a ‘front man’ for the Salmon and Gluckstein families. They knew the value of a good name, later brilliantly exploited in the slogan 'Where's George? Gone to Lyonch'.

Some department store pioneers were characters in their own right, such as William Whiteley, the ‘Universal Provider’, Harry Gordon Selfridge, and John Spedan Lewis. Others stayed out of the limelight, as did Charles Digby Harrod and Ernest Debenham. Albert Gamage captivated children and sports enthusiasts alike with the brands in his London store. On the grocery side, few business magnates worked harder at self-publicity than Thomas Lipton, with his 600 country-wide branches. A different kind of service altogether was offered by the euphonious Moss Bros., under the entrepreneur Harry Moss. As general outfitters, the firm hired out every conceivable type of wear for special occasions, from coronation robes to huntsmen's and morning and evening dress.

With tangible products also, it did no harm for manufacturers to have a ring to their names. William Veno as a young entrepreneur perceived the runaway global success of James Eno and his Fruit Salt, and changed his name from Varney in order to market Veno's Lightning Cough Cure.

The rise of the entrepreneur

Brand, or trade, names played their part in the so-called consumer revolution of the eighteenth century in England, when the business community eagerly gratified the inexhaustible demand of the moneyed classes for novelties of all kinds, from fashion garments to candlesticks and razor-strops. Yet that stampede was largely confined to Londoners. The first entrepreneur to become a household name throughout Britain, and in much of the wider world, was the master potter Josiah Wedgwood. A model innovator, he combined technical inventiveness with aggressive marketing skills of the highest order, manifested in a well-stocked London showroom, seductive catalogues, and teams of itinerant representatives, all craftily appealing to the acquisitiveness and drive for novelty among his wealthy clients. He was content to see rivals make little mark with their inferior copies.

By contrast, one bunch of entrepreneurs had to fight hard for their markets. Patent medicine manufacturers, exploiting the most powerful human drive, that of achieving good health, had earlier hijacked the business of herbalist ‘wise women’ in rural locations, relying only on word-of-mouth recommendations. The roll-call of nostrum-mongers included Patrick Anderson and his Scots Pills (guaranteed to flush out the system after carouses), Thomas Daffy and his Elixir Salutis, Joshua Ward with his pills and drops, and John Gowland with his lotion. Samuel Solomon pushed his Cordial Balm of Gilead with a striking quotation from the biblical book of Jeremiah, 'Is there no balm in Gilead?' All those brands were shamelessly counterfeited after their inventors' deaths; only Dr Robert James troubled to employ an agent, the publisher and patent medicine warehouseman John Newbery, so that his brand of fever powders survived for two centuries.

Charles Stewart Rolls (1877–1910)

by unknown photographer, c. 1905

By the nineteenth century, business people increasingly resorted to branding, as mechanization and improved communications encouraged ever larger industries and firms. The adoption of packaging for many simple products helped to speed up the practice of branding. In 1826 John Horniman began selling his tea in packets; by 1900, when his son Frederick John Horniman headed the firm, that tea was claimed to be the leading brand in Britain and his firm the largest tea supplier in the world. Thomas Beecham from 1848 onwards packed his digestive and cough pills in boxes rather than wrapping them in paper spills.

An entrepreneur in the Wedgwood mould, Beecham regularly introduced new manufacturing methods, to ensure that his pills were made to the highest standards, at a time when competitors offered poorly mixed varieties. He and his son Sir Joseph Beecham from the 1880s onwards pressed home their competitive advantages with publicity on a record scale. Their ‘fun’ advertisements made the Beecham name almost universally known. They jealously safeguarded their brands by prosecuting imitators, so that by the time that Beecham's pills were discontinued in 1998, total sales had numbered some 40,000 million, or 40 billion. When in 1926 the company launched a powder for coughs and influenza, it held a competition to choose an appropriate name: the one chosen was plain Beecham's powders.

Brand names in the mass market

The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London brought to public notice the names and brands of many British entrants, the winners in each category gaining much goodwill from their prize medals awarded at that and subsequent national and international exhibitions. However, rival firms from overseas also displayed their wares, and many thereafter strove to undermine Britain's exports, and home trade, by dressing up their own brands as British products. The select committee on the parliamentary bill, which became the—ineffective— Merchandise Marks Act of 1862, heard evidence on behalf of Bass & Co. (see the entry on Michael Thomas Bass). That brewery's labels had been copied without permission, both at home and overseas. Brown & Polson, cornflour and starch manufacturers founded by John and William Brown and John Polson and also the victims of counterfeiting, described chancery proceedings under the common law as both costly and uncertain in outcome.

The Trade Marks Registration Act of 1875 at long last gave full protection to owners of commercial brands, once they had been registered with the trade marks registry in the Patent Office. Many prominent companies at once took advantage of the act. The tobacco manufacturer W. D. & H. O. Wills registered both its distinctive eight-point star and its leading brands, including the much-imitated Black Jack tobacco, subject of a landmark court case against offenders in 1879. Its nearest rival, John Player, registered the Gold Leaf name of his company's tobacco, and later some highly distinctive images, in particular that of the bearded sailor, framed by a lifebelt, to advertise Player's Navy Cut cigarettes. Its clever slogan, 'Player's please', and invention of that delight of juveniles, the cigarette card, did much to consolidate buyer satisfaction with the company and its brands.

William Hesketh Lever, first Viscount Leverhulme (1851–1925)

by William Strang, 1918

University of Liverpool Art Gallery and Collections

William Hesketh Lever, Viscount Leverhulme, founder of the soap-making enterprise which in time became part of Unilever, registered his Sunlight soap, an early example of one that was packaged. Later heavily advertised brands of his were the Lux toilet soap and the cleansing powder Vim. Andrew Pears left to his brother-in-law Thomas Barratt the task of pushing his brands of soap. Barratt, unlike Lever, emphasized the company's name, so that Pears' soap, through his often controversial advertising, became instantly recognized everywhere.

A key luxury foodstuff at that time was cocoa. Demanded both as a beverage and in chocolate form, consumption per head increased nearly sevenfold between 1860 and 1900. The three industrial leaders were Cadbury, Rowntree, and Fry. Joseph Fry was not innovative, unlike George Cadbury, who early adopted the invention of pressing out from the beans much of the unpalatable cocoa butter. He then advertised his ‘pure’ cocoa essence and from 1897 Cadbury's Milk (later Dairy Milk) chocolate. The location of his works provided the names of Bournville cocoa and Bournville chocolate.

Joseph Rowntree for many years resisted advertising, until in 1887 he began to market Elect cocoa, based on an improved method of processing raw beans. In the 1930s his great-nephew George Harris reinvigorated the company with an astonishing range of brands, namely Black Magic and Dairy Box chocolates, the specialities Kit Kat and Aero, and Smarties sweets. He enticingly advertised Black Magic with discreet hints of sensuality. John Mackintosh made his name by inventing a new softer kind of toffee. His son Harold Mackintosh, Viscount Mackintosh of Halifax, having diversified into chocolate, also during the 1930s launched Quality Street and Milk Tray assortments, as well as Rolo. The subsequent merger with Rowntree brought together a noteworthy collection of brands. Another brand from this period, the Mars Bar, was launched by the American confectioner Forrest Mars, working out of a one-room flat in Slough.

Drink products have always been the subject of assiduous branding, most prominently Guinness stout, pioneered by Arthur Guinness and his son, also Arthur Guinness. Noteworthy twentieth-century advertisements included 'Guinness is good for you' and 'My goodness, my Guinness!', illustrated by John Gilroy. Beer brewers tended to advertise on a less grand scale as they had their tied houses, but two were leaders in their trade. Bass was mentioned above, while Henry Allsopp is celebrated as an innovator in brewing technology and in launching the popular India pale ale.

Many brands of Scotch whisky achieved world-wide fame. Arthur Bell was less entrepreneurial than his son Arthur Kinmond Bell, but millions found their slogan 'Afore ye go' an irresistible invitation to down that extra dram. Alexander Walker in his firm's advertisements portrayed his eponymous grandfather Johnnie Walker as a cheery individual in Regency garb striding along, leaving the public to appreciate the pun. The mineral water company founded by Jacob Schweppe seemed to have an unappealing name from the viewpoint of publicity. However, the slogan 'Schweppervescence lasts the whole drink through' proved to be a winner. Frederic Hooper as managing director subsequently promoted any number of cloyingly fanciful variations on themes such as Schweppeshire county and 'How many Schwepping days to Christmas?'

A late nineteenth-century fad was to think up outlandish names for products, such as Mazawattee tea. Invented by John Boon Densham in 1887, it combined two Far Eastern words for ‘luscious garden’, but vanished in 1955. The beef extract Bovril (from bos or ox and the invented word ril) came from John Lawson Johnston. Justus von Liebig (d. 1873) was a gifted innovator in the technology of rendering down beef, and his successor invented the startlingly simple name of Oxo for its cubes. Cerebos salt (ceres and bos combined) was the work of George Weddell, a chemist, whose company later manufactured the gravy powder Bisto, popularized by the immortal Bisto kids and their cry, 'Ah! Bisto!'

The modern brand

Sir Joseph Beecham, first baronet (1848–1916)

by unknown photographer

St Helens Local History & Archives Library

In the twentieth century entrepreneurship and branding changed profoundly, thanks to a further transport revolution, later interconnected with the electronic revolution. The arrival of the internal combustion engine permitted cars, goods vehicles, and aircraft to monopolize the conveyance of humans and products alike. Car makers therefore sought brands that were most easily recognized by the public. Of the dozens of British manufacturers early in the century, two emerged as industry leaders. Herbert Austin produced a range of cars, branded simply as the Austin Seven (or Baby Austin) and several larger models. His ability as an innovative engineer was not matched by comparable marketing skills. William Morris, later Viscount Nuffield, introduced efficient standardized mass production to permit competitive pricing. On the branding side, he cleverly linked his surname with the product in his Morris Oxford and Morris Cowley models. The ultimate luxury car was the Rolls-Royce, agreeably combining the names of Charles Rolls and Henry Royce. The spectral brand names chosen for successive models, such as Phantom, Wraith, and Silver Ghost, only added to their mystique.

Such engines needed power to propel them, and two leading British oil companies purposefully advertised their petrols. The founder of Shell, Marcus Samuel, came of a mercantile family that traded in shells from the Far East, and happily chose that succinct and easily remembered name for his company of 1897. Later on, it was hammered home in slogans such as 'That's Shell—that was!' and 'You can be sure of Shell'. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, established by William Knox D'Arcy and converted into a global enterprise by Charles Greenway, found little publicity value in its name. However, its marketing company, British Petroleum, was helpfully abbreviated to BP, so that when a brand containing the additive tetraethyl came out in the 1930s, its advertisements ran, 'BP Ethyl for snappy engines'. After the main company became British Petroleum in 1954, it staidly announced that 'BP is the key to better motoring'. A truly entrepreneurial producer of lubricants was Charles Wakefield, who combined advanced research with massive and often topical advertising for his product, Castrol, deriving its name from a former ingredient, castor oil. Acquired in 1966 by the Burmah Oil Company, founded by David Cargill and continued by his son John Cargill, Castrol maintained its high technological and marketing reputation until Burmah was acquired by BP in 2000.

Michael Marks (1859–1907)

by unknown photographer

Marks & Spencer Company Archive

When supermarkets began to spring up from the late 1950s onwards, appropriate company names were needed. The Sainsbury family had early established a reputation in food retailing, claiming to sell 'the best butter in the world'. Alan Sainsbury planned Britain's first self-service store on American lines, and adhered to the family name, as the chain store founded by Michael Marks had done in maintaining that of Marks and Spencer. However, John Cohen combined the initials of a tea supplier, T. E. Stockdale, with the first two letters of his name. Tesco's nearest corporate rival derived Asda from its earlier title of Associated Dairies and Farm Stores, starting life as a milk co-operative which Sir Arthur Stockdale built up into a retailing giant.

Some entrepreneurs exploited alternative preoccupations in British minds. Thus pharmaceutical companies strove to gratify the demand for health through its products, as patent medicine firms had earlier done in a less sophisticated way. A company making milk powder for 'bonnie babies'—promoted by Alec Nathan—had its brand choice of Lacto rejected by the trade mark office, and by trial and error arrived at Glaxo. Glaxo's entry into antibiotics was organized by Sir Harry Jephcott, at the same time as Beecham pioneered its semi-synthetic penicillins under Leslie Lazell. If the British population did not wholeheartedly embrace sex as a sport until the 1960s, A. R. Reid, chairman of the (then) London Rubber Company, had done his bit in 1929 when, in a moment of inspiration during a commuter journey, he thought up the name Durex for his latest brand of contraceptive.

To end on a sombre note, the latest developments in communications have to a large extent diminished the value of brands, as there are nowadays too many of them around. The consumer magazine Which attempts by careful analysis to guide readers through the merits of relatively few brands; yet many people's choice of a specific product seems to depend on the last press or television advertisement seen or on the one nearest their eye level in the supermarket. Perhaps the supermarkets themselves have taken advantage of that trend by dramatically increasing the number of their own brands, aimed at transferring consumer goodwill from the article to the distributor.

Older economists used to stress the welfare losses incurred in advertising. Then they were overtaken by a new generation, welcoming the benefits gained from the widest possible consumer choice, stimulating intensive competition. Now that we live in a global society, so that the size and concentration of producing and distributing companies have become so great, the consumer is no longer paramount, and to that extent must have become worse off than in the less frenetic past.


  • G. Stubbs, ceramic colours on ceramic, 1780, Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston; Josiah Wedgwood [see illus.]
  • photograph, 1905, Hult. Arch; Charles Stewart Rolls [see illus.]
  • W. Strang, portrait, 1918, U. Lpool, art collections; William Hesketh Lever, first Viscount Leverhulme [see illus.]
  • photograph, St Helens Central Library, St Helens Local History and Archives Library; Sir Joseph Beecham, first baronet [see illus.]
  • photograph, Marks and Spencer, London, archive; Michael Marks [see illus.]