linked in facebook twitter rss

  • Interbrand
  • Brandchannel

your chance!
your chance!
Colonial Williamsburg
 

Colonial Williamsburg


  Colonial Williamsburg
it's history
by Garland Pollard
March 1, 2004

Just 20 years ago, if you wanted a piece of Colonial Williamsburg, you could go to New York’s Fifth Avenue, where the restored Virginia town had a shop in the genteel department store B. Altman. There, you could select Wedgwood bone China patterns, order a mahogany Chippendale-style highboy chest (custom made by the Kittinger Company of Buffalo, New York), or buy a Queen Anne-style gold leaf and gesso looking-glass. Confused about gesso, Chippendale or Queen Anne? The 300-page Williamsburg Reproductions catalog, a sort of WASP pornography, not only described each item in excruciating detail, but offered up pages upon pages of design ideas as well as a glossary of furniture words like ogge, splat and burl, and a chart of Williamsburg-brand Martin Senour paints.
 
 

Today, B. Altman is closed and Kittinger, which went through a round robin of corporate buyouts, is no longer with Williamsburg. For decades, Williamsburg’s licensee was Josiah Wedgwood, the old-line British company that is now Wedgwood Waterford. Today, Wedgwood partners with super-luxury brands like Bulgari and British designers like Basia Zarzycka and Jasper Conran. On the other hand, Williamsburg now sells colonial reproduction plates from China maker Lenox, which partners with Zales, that mall jewelry store. Furniture is not always copied in “excruciating detail,” but instead can come Crate & Barrel-style, made by the Massachusetts company Nichols & Stone. Certainly nice, but a touch more mid-market than before.

The catalog has changed too, everything from tchotchke colonial figurines to pineapple “Welcome” signs that, dare we say it, hint at Lillian Vernon. Table lamps are sold at Lowe’s, the big box hardware store. Online (and on sale for US$ 7.50 at williamsburgmarketplace.com) are “orange cream” smelly candles reminiscent of something in a suburban Kirkland’s, or a Cape Cod tourist shop. Williamsburg, once known for design leadership, has begun to ape its imitators. At its core, Colonial Williamsburg is a town that became a brand and it is that brand that is in jeopardy of descending into a “ye olde” parody. Like Gucci, it needs a reinvigorating Tom Ford who can navigate a tenable path between hip, history and brand expectations.

It’s a different era for Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, born of success in convincing millions that they could get that Colonial America feeling through Williamsburg. That success spawned imitators. House museums like Monticello and Winterthur have ratcheted up their licensing, and now are destinations-cum-catalogs. In addition, Williamsburg’s retail look has been copied by everyone from Ethan Allen to Bombay Company. While Williamsburg is trademarked, the town is not, which allows local retailers like Williamsburg Jeep to borrow the mystique.

Today, the Foundation is fighting for its life. Last year, visitation was down to under 800,000 (dropping since 1995) and the Foundation lost a stunning US$ 35 million, according to the Associated Press. Those who observe the situation think there is still a market, but it is by no means assured; even beloved Cypress Gardens closed. “I don’t think cultural tourism is dying,” says Ken McCleary, a Virginia Tech professor of tourism and hospitality. Instead, McCleary says that the new attractions like Vegas hold more excitement. “There is so much more competition for that kind of stuff.”

Williamsburg must get a lot right, all the time, as the scope of what its thousands of employees do is beyond most any other brand. It is first a US history museum (actually a couple of museums and dozens of exhibition houses), both indoor and outdoor. It is a landlord, renting houses to employees and guests (a recent exec was, upon hiring, delighted to be handed a skeleton key when he took possession). Like a theme park, it runs parades, bands and dress shops. Like an historical society, it runs a public archive. Like National Geographic, it has publications, a documentary unit and archaeologists. Like any company town, it runs restaurants, hotels and bus routes. Williamsburg has national experts in textiles, furniture, decorative arts, costumes, even fake-food. It also makes products; last year, it began selling silverware, leather bound books and cedar buckets made in the shops.

Williamsburg is one of the world’s great experiments in brand revival. In the 1920s when John D. Rockefeller Jr. first became interested in the former capital of Virginia, it was to restore or rebuild the main public buildings because of associations with past US presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Taverns in town were fully reborn and rebuilt as real restaurants — Christiana Campbell’s, Shields Tavern, King’s Arms and Chowning’s. Today, each is a separate concept with its own menu, logo and product licensing.

As the tourists came, other brands began. First there was the luxury Williamsburg Inn, which Rockefeller envisioned as the sort of place Rockefellers would stay. Then came the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club and the Motor House (yes a motel!). Part of the brand appeal was the magic Rockefeller touch. After all, John D. Rockefeller Jr. simultaneously created Rockefeller Center and Colonial Williamsburg.

Through the years, Williamsburg led taste and trends. Synonymous with quality and good taste, Williamsburg had snob appeal without alienating the average tourist. In 1983 it even hosted Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at the G-5 Economic Summit. Today, the mix appears not to be working.

Hoping to capture a “silver lining” from September 11, last summer CW defensively issued a poll stating that half of the US was not taking a summer vacation. It closed its nearby plantation Carter’s Grove, and is selling off real estate. It will close and move the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. The venerable Craft House, CW’s cozy department store, will be torn down, and the retailer moved. Tourists now go to the Craft House to photograph it before its destruction later this year, certainly a curious position for a preservation non-profit.

If there is one criticism that folks at Colonial Williamsburg hate, it is that Williamsburg is Disney – a 300-acre colonial theme park of fife corps. But the parallel with Disney (or EPCOT) is eerie. It was no secret that Uncle Walt was fascinated with Williamsburg; the restoration of Duke of Gloucester Street predates Disneyland’s Main Street by 25 years. Its resort Williamsburg Inn also predates Disneyland’s resorts. Like Disney, CW is at a crossroads. Does it take the Roy Disney route, and go back to its roots? Does it follow Michael Eisner, and stick to its guns? Or does it reinvent itself with a new partner like Comcast?

Certainly, the problems are a result of changing fashion. Williamsburg has always prided itself on historical accuracy and that comes at a price. Today, the CW newspaper uses a shirtless, sweaty black slave with flames coming out his head and a sharpened hoe as if ready for race war in its marketing communications. Whether that is a complete picture of colonial history is debatable; that it does not appeal to its core white, upper middle class audience is undeniable. In the old days, Williamsburg hired costumed guides who discussed the furniture and architecture; today there are “interpreters” who play characters. While many like it, it is expensive and alienates high-end guests who would rather have scholarly descriptions of ogees and gesso.

Much is right, however. Williamsburg hired Quinlan Terry, the British architect and favorite of Prince Charles, to add onto the retail downtown Merchant’s Square, a retail area which bucked the downward trend of just about every American downtown. It restored the pre-Hawaii Five-0 Jack Lord movie, The Story of a Patriot. It even continued the annual Antiques Forum, which attracts collectors to the Williamsburg Lodge. Wisely, it has reserved the “4 XX” reproductions logo for copies from the collection. And it's still clever — one of the more amusing mascots sold is Wellington, the Leicester Longwool Sheep, a stuffed reproduction of a Williamsburg rare-breed sheep.

Furthermore, Williamsburg still can provide a bold marketing flourish; on President’s Day in February, it placed an intellectual ad on The New York Times’ op-ed page to celebrate Lincoln and Washington. It includes its bold new marketing slogan, “America. Chapter I.” which is certain to appeal to the core audience of upper middle class families. Let’s hope it works. While Williamsburg might be America’s first chapter, it would be a shame to write Williamsburg’s last.

 
     
  

John Garland Pollard is a Virginia magazine editor. While in college in the ’80s, he worked at the Craft House and counts as one of his great childhood achievements winning a pie-eating contest in a public “faire” in the Governor’s Palace Garden.

  
     
 commenting closed Add Social Bookmark bookmark  print
 suggest topic  recommend ( 20 )  email

  brandchannel profile archive   2011  |  2010  |  2009  |  2008  |  2007  |  2006  |  2005  | 2004  |  2003  |  2002  |  2001
 
 
Dec 20, 2004 Thums Up - storms ahead
  Local favorite Thums Up has taken on both Coke and Pepsi on its home turf.
   
 
Dec 13, 2004 Lithuania - defining itself -- Kristina Dryza
  Emerging nations face the dual task of promoting their brands and promoting their country. Lithuania makes its mark.
   
 
Dec 6, 2004 Singapore Airlines - flying tiger -- Martin Roll
  Singapore Airlines demonstrates how to manage a brand in an otherwise turbulent time for the airline industry.
   
 
Nov 29, 2004 Zuji - takes off -- Adeline Chong
  ZUJI leaves its footprint on the Asian travel and tourism industry.
   
 
Nov 22, 2004 Volvo - safe? -- Jeremy Josephs
  Moving beyond safe: Can Volvo drive the brand forward without going over a cliff?
   
 
Nov 15, 2004 Banyan Tree - branching out -- Ming Wu
  The luxury spa and hotel chain Banyan Tree is branching out to a location near you.
   
 
Nov 8, 2004 HP & iPod - out of sync -- Jackson Mahr
  Is this relationship doomed? HP and iPod hook up in a mismatched fling.
   
 
Nov 1, 2004 L’Occitane en Provence - breaking out -- Emilie Boyer King
  L’Occitane en Provence captures the beauty of Provence but does its appeal rely on its rarity?
   
 
Oct 25, 2004 Nudge Nudge - wink wink -- Mark Jarvis
  Nudge nudge sets out to test the notion that sex sells.
   
 
Oct 18, 2004 Boyd Group - full service -- Geoff Kirbyson
  Can Boyd manage its sub-brands without colliding?
   
 
Oct 11, 2004 Delhaize Bio - whole -- Sergio Beristain
  Supermarket chain Delhaize’s Bio brand offers an organic choice on the shelf.
   
 
Oct 4, 2004 Malaysia - inviting -- L.S. Sya
  What is the solution for growing tourism and investment in Malaysia?
   
 
Sep 27, 2004 DQ - blended -- Geoff Kirbyson
  Dairy Queen extends its DQ brand to grill and chill.
   
 
Sep 20, 2004 G.O.D. - divine -- Adeline Chong
  G.O.D. coming to a store near you
   
 
Sep 13, 2004 Labatt Blue - on ice -- Geoff Kirbyson
  Bears, hockey and maple leafs: Labatt’s message depends on who’s drinking.
   
 
Sep 6, 2004 Modo & Modo - notable -- Cristian Salazar
  Modo & Modo writes the book on a cult brand.
   
 
Aug 30, 2004 Tab Trailer - retro active -- Alycia de Mesa
  Keeping tabs on Dutch trailer brand T@b.
   
 
Aug 23, 2004 Roots - outfits -- Birte Pampel
  Canadian brands Roots conquers the 2004 Olympic Games.
   
 
Aug 16, 2004 IOC - lords of the rings
  Can the International Olympic Committee ever hope to restore Olympic glory?
   
 
Aug 9, 2004 Global Trust Bank - broke
  Take the trust out of Global Trust Bank and it’s all over.
   
 
Aug 2, 2004 Cadillac - fully loaded -- Alycia de Mesa
  Not your grandparents' Cadillac.
   
 
Jul 26, 2004 A&W - floating on -- Geoff Kirbyson
  A&W looks to the past for its future.
   
 
Jul 19, 2004 Minol - Total trend? -- Slaven Marinovich
  Capitalizing on a nostalgia trend in Eastern Germany, Total revives the Minol mark to see if there’s any juice left in the brand.
   
 
Jul 12, 2004 Luxe - guided -- Adeline Chong
  Luxe writes the book on Asian travel.
   
 
Jul 5, 2004 American Apparel - all sweaty -- Abram Sauer
  Clothing manufacturer American Apparel uses an old ploy to dress up its basic clothing.
   
 
Jun 28, 2004 C2 - Coke too? -- Geoff Kirbyson
  Can the low-carb trend support C2?
   
 
Jun 21, 2004 Cold Stone Creamery - the scoop -- Alycia de Mesa
  Cold Stone Creamery takes a scoop from Starbucks on how to sell premium ice cream.
   
 
Jun 14, 2004 Volkswagen - bugs out -- Geoff Kirbyson
  VW cruises unchartered road as it tries to move beyond budget cars.
   
 
Jun 7, 2004 Chippendale - tuxedo junction -- Abram Sauer
  Can Chippendales straighten up?
   
 
May 31, 2004 Rogers Wireless - AT&T-less -- Geoff Kirbyson
  After using AT&T to help establish itself in the wireless market, Rogers is ready to go solo without the famous trademark.
   
 
May 24, 2004 Air Deccan - simpliflied -- brandchannel
  Low cost carrier Air Deccan needs to stress the difference between cheap and inexpensive.
   
 
May 17, 2004 Entegra - saved -- Geoff Kirbyson
  From Holy Spirit to Entegra, a Canadian credit union emerges from the past.
   
 
May 10, 2004 Manchester United - saves the game -- Mark Jarvis
  Manchester United is having a foul year but does that mean the brand is falling short?
   
 
May 3, 2004 Girls Gone Wild - milking it -- Abram Sauer
  Girls Gone Wild overreaches its brand.
   
 
Apr 26, 2004 Aubade - French made -- Emilie Boyer King
  French lingerie brand Aubade gives a lesson in selling lingerie
   
 
Apr 19, 2004 Djarum - smokes -- Cristian Salazar
  Tobacco regulation issues threaten the fringe following of Indonesian brand Djarum
   
 
Apr 12, 2004 Pixar - moving pictures -- Brad Cook
  The picture of innovation, Pixar takes Disney’s crown. Can it maintain its spot?
   
 
Apr 5, 2004 MI5 - license to brand -- Chris Grannell
  Aside from listening devices, mini-submarines and poisoned umbrellas, MI5’s most powerful asset is its brand.
   
 
Mar 29, 2004 Pella - weatherproof -- Michael Standaert
  Pella takes panes to improve its brand.
   
 
Mar 22, 2004 Innocent Drinks - savvy -- Lizzy Stallard
  Innocent Drinks’ secret ingredient? Words.
   
 
Mar 15, 2004 BMW - changes lanes -- Aaron Danzig
  BMW appears to be boldly changing lanes.
   
 
Mar 8, 2004 ICICI - insured? -- brandchannel
  Will ICICI demonstrate the old adage about rising fast and falling hard?
   
 
Feb 23, 2004 Sobeys - branching out -- Geoff Kirbyson
  Retailer Sobeys reorganizes its shelves to make room for an acquisition.
   
 
Feb 16, 2004 Peg Pérego - strolls -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  In the rather aggressive market of stroller brands, Peg Pérego stakes its place in the nursery on quality and reliability.
   
 
Feb 9, 2004 7 UP - flips -- Abram D. Sauer
  dnL may be 7 UP upside down, but what does that make 7 UP?
   
 
Feb 2, 2004 TELUS Mobility - animal instincts -- Geoff Kirbyson
  When critters carry more weight than humans
   
 
Jan 26, 2004 Clément Faugier - tops -- Emilie Boyer King
  Consistency appears to be the secret of Clément Faugier’s success.
   
 
Jan 19, 2004 J.Lo vs Fetish - diva fashion -- Abram D. Sauer
  Celebrity clothing brands Fetish and J.Lo size up the consumer market.
   
 
Jan 12, 2004 Galp - energized -- Robin D. Rusch
  Can branding help fuel Galp Energia’s rise to prominence in the Iberian Peninsula?
   
 
Jan 5, 2004 Cisco - keyed in -- Brad Cook
  The secret to Cisco’s growing success? Ever increasing relevance in our technology driven world.