The @Woolworths_SA hummingbird: a parable

One day, not too long ago, a young artist named Euodia was invited to contribute some of her work to a product range a local merchant called Woolworth was putting together[1]. The two met frequently and Euodia was pretty excited about the prospect of her work being added to Woolworth’s inventory, he was well regarded in the area and all the local farmers saved for months to buy his goods.

Euodia shared many of her ideas and artworks with Woolworth including a painting of a hummingbird she was selling in her store. One of the ideas they discussed was a pillow with her hummingbird printed on it. That would surely be a treat!

Sadly, Woolworth decided against continuing with Euodia and he sent her a note a few months later letting her know. She was disappointed and went on her way. A short while later, she happened to come across a store selling Woolworth’s goods and noticed a pillow with a hummingbird on it that looked remarkably like hers. She was shocked! The pillow size looked about the same as the one she discussed with Woolworth and he even seemed to take words about hummingbirds from the legendary Book of Wiki and used it as a background on the pillow and there was no mention of his source at all[2]. Shameful!

She has heard stories about Woolworth doing something like this to other artisans in the land, including a young fellow called Frankie who came up with an idea for some old-style cool drinks which some locals seem to favour. She was horrified to discover that she seemed to be next in line. She felt compelled to share her story and published her sad tale in her newsletter. Soon, it seemed even the birds were twittering about it. Everyone was shocked.

When Woolworth heard the story from a number of little birdies, he was dismayed and published a notice of his own. He said he had been talking to another talented artist in a coastal town some time ago about a similar concept and didn’t steal Euodia’s idea. It was all a bit misunderstanding and he had sent many messages to Euodia in an effort to meet with her and sort this whole thing out.

The people weren’t convinced. They heard about poor Frankie and were outraged that Woolworth had stooped to this level. They quickly came together and decided to petition Woolworth to stop taking advantage of local artisans.

A young writer read a story in a local paper and gave this all some thought. He hadn’t worked with Woolworth before but something about the story and what everyone was saying about Woolworth seemed to miss a possible explanation. He decided to investigate whether Woolworth really did pull the wool over everyone’s eyes or whether something else was afoot.

In the meantime, some intrepid journalists discovered that Euodia’s hummingbird may not have been completely original work either. This just fuelled our young writer’s curiosity so he set off for his local thinking spot under a shady tree and conducted a thought experiment.

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Certainly, he thought, Woolworth could be the devious and unprincipled trader many accused him of being and if he had stolen Euodia’s idea like he seemed to have taken Frankie’s, he deserved the scorn he was receiving. In addition, given how closely other traders listen to messages carried by birds, Woolworth would almost certainly discover that a black reputation could have dire consequences for his value on local markets.

Perhaps, he thought further, there was another explanation. He had dabbled in laws and had noticed that most talented and persuasive business people like Woolworth tended not to consult with their lawyers. Their business was dynamic, exciting and full of potential and lawyers just seem to suck the light and colour out of the room when they speak. Perhaps Woolworth didn’t consult with his lawyers in their dungeons when he came up with his plan to work with Euodia.

Or, our young thinker thought, Woolworth did speak to his lawyers and they gave him a deed or some sort for Euodia to sign and which gave him permission to use her art in some form or another? She didn’t mention anything about that but it has been known to happen[3].

Exploring his first hypothesis a little further, our writer found himself wondering whether Woolworth, mindful of the Frankie story (and other similar stories), shouldn’t have adopted a different approach. Imagine Woolworth approached Euodia to contribute to his new artisan range not merely as a muse or supplier but as a creative partner of sorts. The world is a competitive place and you can’t help but hear stories about young creative people like Euodia outdoing established business people like Woolworth. Certainly, Woolworth’s products seem to bear that out. He certainly seemed to believe that Frankie was on to something great when he styled his drinks after Frankie’s. Similarly, Woolworth seemed to draw considerable inspiration from his discussions with Euodia in producing his hummingbird cushions.

Perhaps the problem here is that Woolworth didn’t challenge the usual relationship between traders like himself and young artisans like Euodia and come up with something that could clearly and transparently have benefitted both of them. What if he approached Euodia to publicly collaborate with him to produce the hummingbird product range using her designs[4] in his aptly named “Artisan” range. She would work with him to create wonderful designs for beautiful products and they would share the credit for the work. Woolworth could use his Artisan range to draw attention to the wonderful local talent Euodia and others represent and perhaps even have them sign their designs. The message he would send would be clear: Woolworth appreciates and supports wonderful, creative and, importantly, local talent and perhaps even goes so far as to create a platform for a select few to represent and uplift their communities.

The lawyers, if they are imaginative enough[5], could construct deeds to support this community upliftment initiative and enable Woolworth to go far further than his competitors in sustainably creating products that bring his customers even more joy. Most people know Woolworth is passionate about supporting schools and communities. Wouldn’t this be a remarkable way to do even more to support them and create opportunities for rich and diverse creativity to fuel it all?

Our writer stood up from his shady spot and ambled back to his small office. He smiled to himself at the thought of a progressive Woolworth. Imagine what he could accomplish. The people would be even more inspired to buy his goods because they would know they would be supporting local, amazing and creative talent.


  1. Disclaimer: This is partly fiction and mostly derived from reports about the so-called #HummingGate controversy which erupted online recently about Woolworths’ dealings with Euodia Roets. It is not based on any actual insights into anyone’s or any company’s methodologies and business practices (because I don’t have any actual insights). This is essentially a “what if?” story.  ↩

  2. As all in the land know, text in the Book of Wiki is available to all under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license which allows many uses but also imposes attribution and license annotation requirements.  ↩

  3. Well, if this was the case, what Woolworth could do with Euodia’s work would depend very much on the wording of that document and he could have the right to do what he did after all, assuming he did what he stands accused of doing.  ↩

  4. Of course this assumes that the hummingbird in question was, in fact her design, and she didn’t draw direct inspiration from another artist. That would complicate matters considerably and our writer could just imagine groups of lawyers rubbing their grubby hands together in glee at the prospect of that.  ↩

  5. A big if but there are some pretty innovative lawyers out there these days.  ↩

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