Communism, the Beatles, and razors:
The year is 1961.
In the United States, John F. Kennedy is elected president, declaring “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Over in Russia, Yuri Gagarin is strapped to a rocket and launched into space. The Beatles play their first set in the United Kingdom. And shaving men start their day by taking a double-edge blade out of its waxed wrapper, securing it in the safety razor head, and carefully scraping their faces at a precise angle.
The razor running across your face in 1961 would be made of carbide steel. Carbide steel razors weren’t great, at least by modern standards. The razors had a problem: they rusted quickly. According to Time, a shaver could only expect to scrape “through three shaves” before having to toss them out.
The technology to beat carbide blades existed. The know-how to turn stainless-steel into a slower-to-rust shaving razor was established. In fact, a few small razor manufacturers were already offering it in small foreign markets. But, as Forbes reported, there wasn’t much of an appetite for it from companies. “All the majors had been playing with the idea for years. They hadn't pushed it for an obvious reason: Since a stainless-steel blade lasts longer than a carbon steel blade, they would obviously sell fewer of them.”
“We only want to purvey garden tools, sirrah.”
Enter Wilkinson Sword. The small British company at the time was best known for their swords—in fact they supplied the queen herself when she needed blades. With the market for swords having shrunk since Wilkinson’s founding in 1772, the company had expanded into several exotic businesses including fire-fighting equipment, bulletproof vests, and gardening implements.
In 1961, looking for a way to promote a new line of gardening equipment they were introducing into the United States, Wilkinson began shipping stainless steel Wilkinson “Super Swords” as a promotional item to be given away with their shears and hoes.
Pandemonium followed. Consumers fell in love with the Super Swords, and the Wilkinsons began to fly off the shelves. “Dealers were yelling for more,” reported Business Week. Some stores continued to use them to promote gardening tools, while others began selling the blades alone “as fast as they could get them.” One would-be buyer reported arriving at a store, being told the shipment would arrive shortly, and returning in a half-hour to find they had all been sold in his absence.
“Dealers were yelling for more”...Some stores continued to use them to promote gardening tools, while others began selling the blades alone “as fast as they could get them.”
Despite the clear demand for the razors, Wilkinson refused to budge from their buy-a-shear-get-a-blade model. They continued to distribute the blades only through “authorized dealers” of their gardening equipment—who were almost all hardware stores. Explained Wilkinson in News Week, “the profits on the blades is not very large. On the other hand, the tools are very profitable indeed.”
Shavers would not be stopped: they continued to clamor for blades. Either begged from Wilkinson’s U.S. representative or bought from hardware stores in bulk, the blades began to find their way onto the shelves of tobacconists and department stores, often at a 25-cent premium over their 75-cent suggested price. So short was the supply that Barron’s said a clerk, “scrutinizes a new customer carefully before he reaches under the counter and hands over a packet of five.”
A Wilkinson ad from 1967.
Wilkinson Goes Worldwide
Eventually, Wilkinson relented. In late 1961 they put in a “crash program” to promote the blades (“Blade is Mightier.”). The company, far smaller than rivals like Gillette, committed £60,000 (today about £1.3 million in pounds or $1.6 million in dollars) to the effort.
Market share of the razor maker soared. In their home in the United Kingdom, they soared from 6% to 46% share of the overall razor market in eight years. In the United States, they bounded from near-nothing to 8%. In Australia the company held 29%, 40% in West Germany, and 41% in New Zealand.
The Shave Giants Fight Back
For three years Wilkinson enjoyed their supremacy in the shave market.
And then the competition struck back.
Gillette, begrudgingly, introduced their first stainless steel razor to the market in 1964. The behemoth backed the foray with an advertising budget that dwarfed what Wilkinson was capable of. Smaller razor makers followed suit. Suddenly, said a Wilkinson executive, “the world was flooded with stainless steel blades.”
Wilkinson fought back by increasing their advertising budget sharply. But profits, previously buoyed by the fact that most of their advertising was word-of-mouth (AKA free), suffered. The company made $10 million in profits in 1964 (around $80 million today). By 1966 those profits had been halved.
As the sixties turned into the seventies, Wilkinson fought to remain relevant. An ill-fated attempt to create an “electrolytically” formed edge cost the company money and time, delaying their introduction of the next big thing, chrome-covered blades, until years after their competitors.
Complicating matters further, the company went through a revolving door of owners in the seventies and eighties. The company was bought by British Match, then sold to Allegheny, then to Swedish Match, then a Netherlands consortium, followed by Warner-Lambert (where it joined Schick), and later Pfizer, then Energizer (where it remains today).
Today Wilkinson-Sword has 20% of the British razor market, less than half of what they had in the sixties. Their razors are mostly re-branded versions of Schicks. The company, however, still sells gardening equipment.
Gillette has recovered from Wilkinson’s attack, though it has lost market share to upstarts like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s in recent years. Still, it commanded 65% of the global shave care market in 2017.
As for Wilkinson’s accidental attack on Gillette, there’s little trace of it now. Wilkinson’s own website barely mentions it. Wikipedia gives it a brief paragraph, and an internet search pulls up few results.
Still, it’s a story that deserves telling. It has the Biblical drama of a David, albeit with a blade instead of a sling, versus a Goliath. It has comedy (how could Wilkinson so stubbornly insist on trowels when their consumers called for razors?) and a global sweep, taking place from the United States, to Germany, to Australia.
But most importantly, it has a sharp lesson for razor makers.
At the end of the day, the best razor will win.
Blade Research started with two guys and a simple question. Why don’t razor blades last longer? After years of shaving with (and throwing away) razors on a weekly basis we knew there had to be a better way. So we created Blade Research. With a few thousand dollars and the summer off after grad school, we researched and experimented until we had an idea we felt would solve this problem: a sapphire razor with a lifetime measured in months or even years. Look for the first version of our razor to go on sale in 2019.
Copyright 2018. Bathysphere LLC DBA Blade Research