Today in Brand History: Gillette
In 1904, King C Gillette patented the Gillette razor blade. His innovation was a thin and disposable blade made of stamped steel. Gillette's invention was inspired in the 1890's when he worked at the Crown Cork & Seal Company. Gillette saw bottle caps with the cork seal that he sold, thrown away after the bottle was opened. His mentor, William Painter, who had invented the Crown cork helped him to see the value in a business built on a product that was used a few times, then discarded. Gillette realized that a profit could be made by selling an inexpensive razor with disposable blades.
While Gillette first started developing his idea in 1895, developing the concept into a working model and drawings that could be submitted to the Patent Office took six years. Gillette founded the American Safety Razor Company in September 1901, changing the company's name to the Gillette Safety Razor Company in July 1902. Gillette had issues getting funding until his old friend John Joyce invested in the company, allowing them to begin manufacturing.
Production began in 1903, and in his first year, he sold a total of 51 razors and 168 blades. Sales continued to build slowly in the US and by 1905 the company opened a sales office in London and a manufacturing plant in Paris. By 1906, Gillette had a blade plant in Canada, a sales operation in Mexico, and a European distribution network that sold in several countries. However, due to its premium pricing strategy, the Gillette Safety Razor Company's razor and blade unit sales grew at a modest pace from 1908 to 1916. Disposable razor blades still were not mass-market product, and barbershops and self-shaving with a straight razor were still popular methods of grooming.
At the onset of World War I, US military regulations required every soldier to provide their own shaving kit. Gillette designed a compact kit with disposable blades, decorated with US Army and Navy insignia and in 1917, Gillette sold 1.1 million razors. Shortly after, Gillette was awarded a contract to supply all American troops with double-edge safety razors as part of their standard field kits, delivering a total of 3.5 million razors and 32 million blades for them. The returning soldiers were permitted to keep that part of their equipment and as a result, they retained their new shaving habits. After the war, Gillette utilized this in their marketing campaigns to reinforce the habit acquired during the war.
While popularity and sales of Gillette razors grew during the post war period, their razors were expensive from the time that they were first introduced and pricing only went down after his patents expired in the 1920's. Gillette's original razor patent expired in November 1921 and to stay ahead of others entering the market with cheaper alternatives, the company adopted a strategy that included continual innovation to maintain a flow of new product that could maintain its higher pricing levels, while quickly lowering pricing on existing models, and coming up with unbranded or rebranded cheaper alternatives in emerging markets to challenge new brands entering the market. The New Improved Gillette Safety Razor launched in Spring 1921 and was the first to employ the "razor and blades" pricing model, where the razor itself was sold at a cheaper price, while the profit margin was made on the replacement blades.
During that time, Gillette and his partner, John Joyce battled for control of the company. Gillette eventually sold his shares to Joyce but his name remained on the brand. Beginning in 1939, Gillette followed Coca Cola and General Mills as one of the first brands to make a significant investment in marketing sporting events after its advertising in the World Series more than doubled the sales that the company had projected. The company sponsored the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports radio program, which eventually expanded into television in the late 1940's. Cavalcade aired many popular sporting events including college football games, baseball, the Kentucky Derby and most notably, professional boxing.
Over the next several decades, Gillette continued to expand its product range, while Schick and Bic competed for share of the razor market. The company spurned attempts by Revlon and Coniston for control of the company before finally agreeing to sell to Proctor & Gamble in 2005 for more than $50 billion.