The terms ‘Utopian Socialist’ and ‘Captain of Industry’ are rarely applied to the same person. But they are both sound descriptions of King Camp Gillette. Yet the revolution Gillette arguably led at the sharp edge (!) is not taking us towards a utopia. Far from it. The inevitable consequence of his successful business strategy is a world of depleting resources and growing land-fill.
King Camp Gillette was born in Wisconsin, in 1855. His father was a patent agent, inventor and entrepreneur, who encouraged Gillette and his brothers to tinker and make things too.
The family moved to Chicago and then, after losing pretty much everything in the Great Fire of 1871, to New York. There, Gillette started his business career as a travelling salesman. After a series of jobs, he ended up at the Crown Cork and Seal Company. There, his boss, the company’s founder, recognised Gillette’s ambition to build a business of his own. His advice was:
‘Invent something people use and throw away.’
The Disposable Razor Blade
We all know how that bit of the story ended. The safety razor was already becoming popular in the United States, but still needed to be sharpened frequently. Gillette wondered if he could produce a blade cheaply enough for men to use it until it was dull, and then throw it away and use a new one.
It turns out, he couldn’t at first. So he sold his blades at below cost price, until he could get the manufacturing volumes high enough for the cost price to drop. Gillette had also invented the handle, and his second great innovation was to stop trying to make money on the razor itself. Instead, he gave it away, as a means to tie users into his blades.
- Disposable products that people need to replace regularly
- Loss-leading accessories that tie users into the consumable items
Built-in Obsolescence, and a Product Eco-system
Today we’d call these ‘built-in obsolescence, and a product eco-system’. But the formula was phenomenally strong. So strong, in fact, that it was widely emulated – especially once Gillette’s patents expired.
Gillette also initiated the third pillar of the modern shaving business. He was constantly introducing minor innovations and improvements to keep ahead of his competitors – double edged blades, and then tin bladed razors.
Contemporary Corporate Strategy
In a market dominated by a few big players (Gillette among them), the demand is necessarily pretty static (the male population – particularly in affluent nations is not growing, and neither are we growing second heads). In the BCG Matrix, these are ‘cash cows’ – highly profitable lines with minimal growth prospects. All a company can do is defend against its rivals and try to steal some market share. So the strategy of constant incremental improvement remains to this day.
As, obviously, does the Gillette brand. Gillette himself resigned from the business in 1931, due to ill health, but it has retained his name to this day. It is now owned by Proctor and Gamble as one of over 20 global consumer brands. But that’s another business strategy entirely.
Gillette lost a lot of his millions to the Wall Street Crash, but maybe he was okay with that. He wrote a number of books that set out a Utopian ideal for a world of no competition, no wars, and benign monopolistic corporations providing employment and welfare. That’s a dream that still lives on at one end of the political spectrum. Perhaps it’s sad that creating this utopia is not what Gillette is remembered for. Instead, we remember him for the disposable razor blade. Oh well, now I’ve finished this article, I’d better go and have a shave.