By Matthew Pisarcik, Founder of Razor Emporium & Razor Archive
When most people think of the Gillette Safety Razor Company, they most likely immediately picture their safety razors of yesteryear or perhaps the modern plastic shaving systems of today. And if you thought a bit harder, you may even conjure up an image of company founder King C. Gillette’s face plastered on all early safety razor blades, boxes, instructions and so forth; or your father using one of their razors to shave with. However, it would take a while before you may come to think of them as a very leading advertising agency, which is precisely what Gillette was throughout most of their history.
Around the turn of the century, safety razors were already in existence and gaining mild popularity. Companies like Kampfe Brothers (the inventor of the Safety Razor), GEM and even J.A. Henckles of Germany were popularizing the new trend to own a shaving razor. While these shaving devices merely put a miniaturized straight razor blade upon a handle, they certainly did start the ball rolling away from the traditional cut-throat style razor popular in barber shops.
This was the market climate that a middle-aged King Gillette found himself in—where even a safety razor blade still was a life-long tool that needed upkeep and care; requiring the owner to hone and strop the blade with regular usage. An idea was born for a disposable safety razor blade utilizing thin sheet-metal sharpened on both sides; made cheap enough to throw away but good enough for several acceptable and comfortable shaves. King had his patentable invention, and along with it, a customer who would need a life time supply of these blades with the onetime purchase of his fancy handle.
This set the stage for what we now know as “Freebie Marketing”, in which the customer receives what is perceived as the product for next to nothing in cost, yet has to upkeep or furnish this device with replacement parts that actually are the revenue-driving component of the business model. Other examples include computer printers and ink/toner, automobile parts and even gaming consoles and software.
Another common method of marketing that Gillette used pervasively and came to perfect was Printed Advertisement. In these high-quality scans from Razor Archive, one can clearly see the early push that Gillette employed to get men to stop using straight razors or visiting barbershops all together. They constantly talked about the hassle of upkeep on a traditional straight razor, saving time and of course “No Honing, No Stropping” that they even incorporated into their logo. Gillette even ran attack ads against barbershops; spreading fear of infections and disease that can be spread by visiting one, and that all together they were dirty and unclean places.
Not only was there a product to be sold in these adverts, but more importantly a message and a promise from King himself—urging the public to try his razor for a 30 day trial or guaranteeing it will be more comfortable than other methods of shaving. Again, such common advertisement techniques that we know of today were not so common in an era where manufacturing companies rarely interfaced so directly with their target market of consumers and instead relied heavily on retail stores to drive sales.
1910’s: Wartime Sales & Ladies Shaving
As the company moved forward with early success in the 1900’s, a new decade was upon them and with it came the need to keep current. With products being sold in 145,000 retail stores throughout the lands, Gillette was truly beginning to be “Known The World Over,” a slogan that they also incorporated into their Diamond & Arrow logo which appeared around the end of the previous decade. One great milestone of the ‘teens for the razor company was the contract with the United States Army to furnish razors for soldiers fighting overseas. Not only did the company capitalize from the contract itself, but also on the prominence of their shaving system being selected for war-time usage.
Advertisements like these were prevalent in newspapers, evening posts and journals, talking about the reliability and performance that soldiers trusted the Gillette razor to give. All the while, this endorsement marketing technique built the reputation and house-hold name of the Gillette Safety Razor Company. Models that never even went to battle were still marketed to the general buying public as if they had. And better still to the war-time production, soldiers returning from overseas came home to become life-long buyers of Gillette blades for their Uncle-Sam issued razors!
Another highlight of the teens was the capturing of an entire buying segment that up to this point remained seriously un-tapped: female shaving needs. Initially titled The Milady Décolleté, the original offering to women was a “safe and sanitary way to the smooth underarms demanded by both good grooming and good dressing.” In essence, Gillette capitalized off reaching a new segment of the shaving population by popularizing the practice in itself. In other words, they made women want to shave their arms, and also want to buy a Gillette to do the shaving. Simply brilliant. Later on, Gillette went a step further to convince European women to do the same thing, and even added in the popularity of clean-shaven female legs. What a concept!
1920’s: The New Improved
The 1920’s brought with it the first major change to the original “Old Type” razor design, dubbed “The New Improved.” Not only did this razor address some of the design and performance concerns of the first series of razors Gillette put out, but it also created the first complete “line-up” of razors available. No longer were owners presented with one choice of a Gillette razor, but now had the option of selecting between differently styled models such as “The Richwood”, “The Bostonian” and even “The Big Fellow.” And with each name came a different styled case and brand persona that was created. Some of these names went on to incarnate themselves throughout several more decades and razor lines, most notable “The Aristocrat.” As simple as this seemed, this model would continue throughout Gillette’s history: offering the same product in different styles to better capture customers with the gimmick of packaging and persona. Just another marketing strategy that later automobile, telephone and wrist-watch companies caught-onto.
1930’s: The Goodwill
Towards the end of the 1920’s the stock market crash affected the entire world over. And whilst still manufacturing razors, Gillette had to change their approach when entering the next decade. They even scrapped many luxurious and high-end models such as the “De Luxe Edition” in favor of budget razors for the first few years after the crash. In an effort to stay current with the nation’s climate, Gillette launched the NEW razor, in line with President Roosevelt’s social recovery plan the New Deal.
Again, these promised even further revisions and improvements to the razors that had just came out years earlier. The real secret behind the ongoing razor improvements was expiring patents and keeping third-party blade makers behind the curve as they started to encroach on Gillette’s bread-and-butter business model. With this model of razor, notice that a new style of blade is again issued to be used in conjunction with the new shaver—a model that Gillette continues to use even today.
The One-Piece Razor
The NEW razor was short lived and made way for the razors that most people know Gillette for: the One-Piece. Debuting in 1934, the Aristocrat was a model name used twice already that now carried a newly unveiled design. Using a twister knob at the bottom, engineers at Gillette were able to develop a razor model that could accommodate a double edge blade in a concise, one-piece style. One of the most interesting aspects of this consolidated design however was all of the marketing and gimmicks that sprung up around it.
The initial advertisements played up the convenience while using catch-phrases such as: “A Twist! It’s open, A Twist! It’s closed.” The ads promoted the idea that you no longer had loose parts or trouble loading a blade, basically evoking the premise of convenience and ease. Later into the 1940’s Gillette even put out a new blade dispenser to work in combination with their razors. At first, they were simply telling consumers to remove the blade and place it into the opened razor bay, but later modified the actual razor to allow the blade to hook onto the notched center bar. This scheme of a the disposable product being closer affiliated with the “Freebie” product increased customer loyalty of razor owners choosing genuine Gillette blades and not using third-party or off brand competitors.
Even while Gillette was producing this great new design, they still continued on with 3 piece style razors all the way into the 1960’s. They never phased out these inexpensive models because they were always after blade sales. However people would buy their razor blades, Gillette sold them a razor to do so. The idea of having a product range that all drove the same revenue-generating profit center (razor blades) is a marketing and business model that not only is successful, but also wide-spread in our modern day and age.