To get a close shave in the late 1800s, you either need to have a very steady hand or know a barber who did. Straight razors were the order of the day, which required stropping, or honing on a leather strip before each shave, and carried the potential for a very nasty cut if your hand slipped. There were some options for safety razors, but those products were just guards on a straight razor that still had to be stropped to stay sharp. That’s a lot of time maintaining your shaving equipment, even if you’re not going to shave every day.
Enter King Camp Gillette with the solution. Today, we’d call the disposable razor blade a feat of category design, and Gillette a category designer. His invention completely changed the way men shaved by focusing on a problem. It was an alternative based on ease of use and efficiency, and a great example of the power of the category design strategy we know today that’s laid out in the book, Play Bigger.
Creating A Razor Sharp Category
Gillette got his initial inspiration for a disposable razor blade from the crown cork, the earliest version of the mass-produced metal bottle cap. It was thin, which meant it required little raw material costs to produce once the machines that made them were built.
Gillette had this idea in 1895, but creating the drawings to be submitted for a patent and a working prototype of the razor handle that would hold the disposable blades, took six years of work. This was largely because of the difficulty in creating a process to manufacture the blades from thin metal sheets.
Eventually, Gillette partnered with William Emery Nickerson, an MIT-trained chemist. Finally, in 1903, production started. The next year, Nickerson was able to build a new blade grinding machine. A nearly disastrous first year saw the Gillette Safety Razor company sell only 51 razors and 168 blades. But with Nickerson’s new grinding machine, their sales numbers by the second year recorded 90,000 razors and 120,000 blades.
While they were moving products, Gillette did not have real mass market appeal thanks to a higher price tag than other shaving options. Most men kept their straight razors and barber appointments. The initial category groundwork had been laid, with a killer product that solved a problem with the existing shaving infrastructure. They were tightly wrapped around the disposable razor blade market, but they needed something else to expand their reach in the larger shaving category.
Category Defining War
World War I changed the trajectory of Gillette and the disposable shaving category forever. When the United States went to war in 1917, the Army decreed that every man must bring his own shaving kit. Suddenly, there was a big demand for a razor that could get a good shave, be light enough to carry around Europe alongside a soldier’s gear, and be able to stand up to the rigors of life on the battlefield.
Gillette already sold what they called a “compact kit” that included a razor handle and some extra blades in a small case. They started printing the Army or Navy logo on the cases and their product vastly outsold all of the razors on the market that required stropping. They sold a million razors that year. While the war had disrupted some of their international markets, it greatly expanded their reach—finding nearly every man who served during the war.
In 1918, the U.S. Army started providing soldiers with shaving kits instead of requiring them to bring their own. Because so many of the men already used Gillette kits, the Army supplied them. This led to Gillette selling 3.5 million razors and over 30 million disposable blades.
On top of the great sales numbers the war brought, it also caused something that would be much more important to Gillette in the long run; it changed the shaving habits of men in the United States. When you needed to strop your straight razor or go into your barber to get a shave, it was not uncommon to go a couple of days between shaves.
What the disposable razors offered to a group of men who were looking for any way to try and feel clean when living in muddy trenches was the opportunity to shave every day. And they did shave every day with a Gillette razor. When all of these men returned home, Gillette leaned into this new trend in their advertising campaigns to keep selling disposable blades.
The Shaving Category
Gillette was ahead of the daily shaving trend by almost two decades when he came up with the idea for the disposable razor blade category. Category design sometimes requires that kind of foresight, and it rewards the ability to recognize consumer problems before many could realize it. Being able to point to a problem that people face everyday is a very powerful marketing tool.
Gillette continued to grow and create new products. But like any company, it faced difficult periods, especially during the Great Depression when it ceded some of its market share to its competitors.
But the category creation bug seems to have always been in Gillette. They marketed the first “Brushless Shaving Cream” to go with their disposable razor blades. And while Bic created the first fully disposable razor where you could trash the whole thing and started penetrating European markets, Gillette made sure to develop a competing product and release it in the United States before Bic expanded. And theirs had two blades while Bic only had one.
Gillette has long been at the forefront of the shaving industry, and it all stems back to King Camp’s creation of the disposable razor category. Everything else the company is today was built on that first idea and the category that came with it.