A simple safety razor like the one pictured at left (via Amazon) can teach us much about marketing.
We forget that those of us in the Western world (and increasingly those of us anywhere) live our lives enmeshed in marketing. Virtually every object in our homes has made it there because of some kind of promotion, whether that was educational or just “spin.” And few things in our lives have been more carefully marketed than shavers.
In Free: The Future of a Radical Price (affiliate link), Chris Anderson talks about King Gillette, who popularized the safety razor and spawned countless imitators in the arena of creating a core product–the shaver–with a complementary good–the razors–that a consumer had to purchase again and again. It was genius, one of the original and still best branding efforts of all time. “Razors and blades” has become a standard business shorthand for such a model, a testament to its power and longevity.
All to the well and good, but not why I’m thinking about the safety razor today. Allow me to give you a bit of background. It involves my personal grooming habits, but I hope you’ll see why it’s applicable in a moment.
So, here’s my routine: For years, I have shaved in the shower using disposable cartridges. It has always worked fairly well. I don’t look too scruffy, and I’ve always thought the blades were of a higher quality than regular disposables, in addition to being better for the environment. Over the years, I’ve ridden the wave of ever-increasing numbers of blades in these cartridges. The double blade was obviously better, right? So why wouldn’t three and then four and now even five be better too? And there were always various strips of stuff on the blade, special blade materials, pivots, hinges…. Sure, I never turned into a fighter pilot like the guy in the commercials, but I figured I was getting a pretty good shave.
Something happened to disrupt this, though. The shaver handle I was using was coated with a kind of plastic which had started to…degrade in the water. It had turned into a sticky mush that was grossing me out. And I thought, “Why do I have to buy another one of these pieces of junk? I’ll just get a metal handle.” Well, it’s not that easy. Long story short, it’s not very convenient to buy a non-disposable handle for disposable cartridges. But the investigation got me to reading about safety razors, which are still made (basically, it’s a thin sheet of metal with razor edges on the two long sides that drops into the holder). “Archaic,” I thought. “A good way to injure myself.” But as I read, I found report after report of people who were perfectly satisfied with them, indeed preferred them. When I found a nice chrome one like the one pictured above on Amazon with 100 blades (about a two-year supply by my rough calculations) for less than $40 (less than half what two years of cartridges would cost, better for the environment, and even cheaper over time), I figured, Why not?
So here I stand a month of use later. No new scars or major lacerations. No identifiable difference in the quality of my shaving. Feeling like a grown-up. Enjoying getting to use that little disposal chute in the medicine cabinet. And wondering why the heck we’re all using razors with multiple blades.
We should remind ourselves that innovation comes in many forms. Most of what passes for “innovation” is really new ways of marketing things. The person who came up with the idea of two blades was a genius, because everyone knows “two is better than one.” Saturday Night Live did a parody in 1975 in which–hah hah–a razor with three blades was released. (It could never get that dumb, right?)
I don’t feel as if razor companies owe me any money back or anything. Until now, I was never anything less than happy with what I was getting, and I doubt in the early ’70s that they knew for sure that two blades weren’t really better than one. Still…we can all think of cases where the marketers involved were obviously trying to sell us a bunch of extra blades on our razors (at a higher price, no less). The Coen brothers parodied it brilliantly in Fargo as Jerry tries to push an undercoating on his potential car buyers, who have already agreed to a price without it:
I sat right here and said I didn’t want no TruCoat!
Yah, but I’m sayin’, that TruCoat, you don’t get it and you get oxidization problems. It’ll cost you a heck of lot more’n five hunnert –
The customer ends up paying an extra $400 for the TruCoat (it’s $100 off the supposed asking price) and leaves furious. “TruCoat” sounds like a wonderful high-tech product, but customers know rustproofing can be a scam (or perhaps that cars should be rust-proof to begin with).
Apple as a company is brilliant at taking things that already exist and making them feel shiny and new. Lots of people believe that Apple had the first touchscreen smartphone and the first graphic user interface. Apple makes incremental improvements to existing technologies, packages them fashionably, and then markets the living heck out of them (far more than, say, Microsoft). When’s the last time you turned on broadcast television and didn’t see an Apple commercial of some time? Why is that? It’s because it takes a lot of work to remind you that the product is new, magical, exciting, revolutionary. Etc. Ironically with Apple, the songs aren’t the razor blades–the songs are the razor handles. You have to keep buying a new Apple product to listen to what you already have.
This isn’t an anti-Apple rant, though. All companies do this to some extent. In a crowded field, you can differentiate yourself in one of only a few ways–on price, on features, on quality, or on mystique. Think Nike. Are the shoes better? Sure they are. Because someone thinks they are. Things are whatever they’re perceived to be.
So what’s the moral of this story? Well, I draw a few lessons from it, including:
- We rely on lots of things that aren’t really needed. If your marketing isn’t working and you start thinking, “If only…” then it’s time to see how many 10-bladed disposable razors you’re using. There’s a cost savings to be had. There’s a creative dividend to be earned as well in thinking about where customers are having pains that they haven’t even realized yet. For instance, you may have never thought about using a safety razor before, but you probably will now, and perhaps (it’s a long shot, but hey) over time a movement will begin and we’ll all go “back to basics.” Changes do indeed happen this way.
- When marketing, don’t discount the value of novelty. At the end of this post, I’m sure people will be arguing the benefits of Apple products and the shave that only a quadratically-formulated-super-tungsten-moon-rock-hardened shaving “system” can produce. Buying things at some level isn’t rational, and if you hew to a notion of “value” that’s based purely on durability, you’ll be giving away money to your competitors for no reason at all. Pricing strategy comes into play as well. People value things more highly when they’ve paid more for them. Our brains tells us it has to be good, or we wouldn’t have done it (see: cognitive dissonance). Generic cereals don’t sell as well because we can’t believe they’re good (when in fact we probably couldn’t tell the difference).
- Be ethical. The public has a notion that marketing is trickery. And when it’s unethical, it can be. I’m always amazed in the grocery store by the number of times that a larger cannister of something costs more per unit than a smaller version. Those stores are pulling one over on us. Product designers, marketers and companies need to have a very strong sense that they are providing actual value–that is to say, value the customer wouldn’t feel cheated by were all the facts known. E.g., if a company knew a second blade provided no better shave than a safety razor and still implied otherwise, it would make a consumer unhappy ultimately. This is exactly why we call it “snake oil”–the original product that didn’t do what it said it would.
- Elegance counts. The razor industry has done well by anyone’s standards. However, as we move into an era of sustainability, one factor in measuring success will increasingly be how little an impact an item had. How elegant a solution was it? Was it fun to use, practical and effective while still being simple and light? My Zen friend Benson Hendrix has me reading The Art of Being Minimalist. It’s an appealing idea. Things are too complicated. This is another way that Apple wins with its products, by stripping out things that most people don’t care about. Mesh, by Lisa Gansky, which I reviewed here, brilliantly addresses this seismic shift in design. Already we see things like LEED (my friend Diana Driscoll is doing great things in this regard) becoming one of the prime ways for properties to signal to top clienteles that they are on the forefront
- A marketing ninja will have just the blades he or she needs–no more, no less. Unnecessary complexity won’t be subsidized by your consumer, but neither will an inferior product. Either one cuts into your margin (pun intended). This is taking a very long view of the marketplace, and this sentiment is only now gaining traction, but I believe it’s the mode of the future. Good marketing is parsimonious.
Ultimately, the question is this: Is anyone justified in selling something that might be but isn’t obviously better? What are your favorite examples? I don’t think it’s a simple answer at all, so I’ll look forward to hearing what you all think. Thanks for reading.