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King Gillette Pioneered the World’s Most Lucrative Sales Model

by: Geoff Ficke

Today we know Gillette to be one of the world’s most successful and highly respected consumer product brand names. The Gillette safety razor is ubiquitous in homes all over the world. The Company is now owned by Proctor & Gamble and continues to introduce new shaving innovations on a regular basis.

King C. Gillette was a travelling salesman, a bit of a bon vivant and a very ambitious entrepreneur. During his travels he fortuitously made the acquaintance of William Painter. Mr. Painter was the inventor of the Crown Cork bottle sealer. His invention was the impetus for the Crown Cork & Seal Company, hugely successful to this day. The inventor was almost messianic in his belief that the key to any successful invention was the ability to repeatedly re-sell the product to the same users. Mr. Gillette became enamored of the concept of “planned obsolescence” and began his quest for an invention that he could commercialize.

One day in 1895 while shaving Mr. Gillette had an idea. At that time shaving was an ungainly affair. The process required a bowl of drawn water, soap, brush, and a straight razor that needed to continually be stropped to maintain sharpness. King Gillette’s brainstorm was to design a razor that held a disposable steel blade. He would sell the razor as a fixture and the blades as refill products, over and over to the same customers.

There was a technical problem, however, that Gillette had to overcome. At that time it was considered near impossible to create a small metal blade that would hold a sharp edge for multiple shaves and be inexpensive. It took six years and the engineering skills of MIT graduate William Nickerson to create the technology to mass-produce disposable razor blades.

King Gillette was nothing if not dogged. However, it took the entry of the United States army into World War I to popularize the Gillette Safety Razor.

Mr. Gillette’s company was able to secure a contract with the government to distribute Gillette Safety Razors to every soldier. By the end of the war 3.5 millions razors and 32 million razor blades had been distributed to soldiers in the field.

When the Armistice to end the war was signed and the American soldiers returned home they imported the Gillette shaving habit with them. There was immediate demand created across the country for Gillette products. The future success of the company was assured and the Gillette brand became a cornerstone of the American consumer product marketplace.

My consumer product marketing consulting firm reviews hundreds of products each year. Recently we had the opportunity to analyze a wonderful beauty product accessory. The inventor had done a wonderful job of crafting the prototype and the features and benefits of the item were of excellent utility. However, the item was a one-time sale. There was no consumable, resale item included in the offering.

We advised the inventor of this obvious, limiting deficiency in the project. Retailers are reluctant to carry single items. Sales would initially spike and then dramatically slow as market penetration occurred. We offered to create a liquid “activator” product to be used in conjunction with the implement. The “activator” would be the razor blade, the hardware implement the equivalent of the Gillette razor.

The “activator” was inexpensive to produce, had huge perceived value, completed and embellished the marketing story and offered retailers and the inventor the opportunity for a steady repeat sales stream. The product is now sold in thousands of beauty salons across the United States and in Europe.

The Gillette sales model is now so common that we take it for granted. “Planned obsolescence” is ubiquitous and insures brand loyalty for many years. The key to building a successful brand that consumers treat as generic is often to mate a fixture or implement with a consumable item. Gillette often gives away the razor to insure that the consumer must purchase their proprietary razor blades or cartridges. Ambitious entrepreneurs should always seek to extend their products reach by incorporating King Gillette’s model.