In September 1901, King Camp Gillette founded the American Safety Razor Co., which was renamed the Gillette Safety Razor Co. in 1904. By the end of that year, in which Mr. Gillette received a U.S. patent for the safety razor, his company had produced more than 90,000 razors and 120,000 blades.
Sales expanded both domestically and overseas, with Gillette opening units in London and Paris, as well as Canada, Germany and, in 1906, Mexico. Gillette's blades were sold wrapped in green paper with Mr. Gillette's picture on the wrapper. Thanks to Mr. Gillette's easily recognizable face and signature adorning every package, the company established one of the first brands known worldwide.
For the "civilized man"
Early Gillette ads targeted men exclusively; they appeared principally in newspapers and general circulation magazines, and stressed the civilizing aspect of shaving. "The country's future is written in the faces of young men," one blurb from 1910 declared, continuing, "The Gillette is a builder of regular habits. Own a Gillette?be a master of your time?shave in three minutes."
Another ad from the same year indicated that Gillette's razors separated independent, civilized men from brutes and effeminate males: "Woman is the great civilizer. If it were not for her, man would revert to whiskers and carry a club. . . . "
Many early ads criticized barbers, who posed a threat to the popularity of home shaving. But such combative ads disappeared once the marketer enticed barbers into selling Gillette products by giving them a percentage of each home kit they sold.
Gillette first attempted to create a profitable women's market in 1915, with an extensive national ad campaign promoting the Milady Decollette as the "safest and most sanitary method of acquiring a smooth underarm"; the campaign proved only marginally successful.
During World War I, the marketer weathered the loss of its European sales offices and factories with help from the U.S. military market. Since 1910, Gillette had asserted that its razor was a "godsend to a sailor" and equated clean-shaven cheeks with manly military discipline. The U.S. military reinforced that message in 1918, when it began issuing each soldier a Gillette shaving kit. That helped Gillette's sales rise from 1.1 million razors in 1917 to 3.5 million razors and 32 million blades in 1918.
When the war ended, millions of U.S. servicemen returned home to ads that suggested a Gillette shave was a symbol of civilization and a universal imprimatur of masculinity: "There are some things that all big-brained, red-blooded men agree on. And the Gillette Safety Razor is one of them. Twenty million men of all breeds, all classes, in every country on earth are using Gillettes every day of their lives and liking them," read one 1920 ad.
Gillette continued its efforts to reach the women's market during the Roaring Twenties, introducing the slightly undersized Bobby Gillette razor in 1924, but it met with limited success.
The marketer took an early shine to radio. Beginning in 1929, listeners could tune in every Friday night to NBC for music by the Gillette Blades Orchestra; the voices of the Gay Young Blades, accompanied by a pair of pianists called the Original Double Blades; and a five-minute sports summary.
A costly merger with the Auto-Strop Razor Co., completed in 1930, combined with the onset of the Great Depression to cut into Gillette's advertising budget; the NBC radio broadcasts were also curtailed early in the decade.
The blade maker's woes continued after Gillette delivered inferior blades to the market in 1930. Following complaints from consumers, Gillette admitted its error in a 1932 ad headlined "We made a mistake." The same ad also announced the marketer's first major product and marketing innovation in 30 years: the Gillette Blue Super-Blade, later renamed the Blue Blade.
After reasoned appeals stressing the new blade's lower cost per shave failed, Gillette returned to scare tactics, claiming that a close shave was the difference between prosperity and poverty. The new ads echoed a 1931 effort that played on the widespread fear of joblessness: "He's careless about shaving-frequently leaves a repulsive growth of stubble on his face. Can he expect an employer to overlook this fault?"
In the midst of these corporate stresses, Mr. Gillette, who had remained active in the company, became ill and died on July 13, 1932, at the age of 77.
While Gillette's profits declined during the Depression, many American men proved unwilling to forego their daily shave. Despite the proliferation of rival products and the increased tendency of consumers to reuse blades, Gillette remained profitable through the 1930s. Still, by 1938, the company held only an 18% share of the blade market.
The sports connection
Gillette's most notable advertising successes came after Joseph P. Spang Jr. took over as president in December 1938 and increased the company's ad budget by 50%. Despite mixed success with earlier efforts to involve the marketer in sports, Gillette in 1939 became the exclusive sponsor of baseball's World Series on the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Gillette committed 20% of its annual advertising budget (more than $200,000) for exclusive radio rights, radio time and a "World Series Special" promotion during baseball's showcase series. The campaign proved remarkably successful, and Gillette sold about 2.5 million World Series Specials?more than twice its projected goal. (In fact, the World Series promotion proved so successful that Gillette remained the event's primary or sole sponsor until 1964.)
Gillette also began pouring an increasing amount of money into other sports broadcasts, sponsoring the Kentucky Derby, college football bowl games and the professional football championships. Gillette furthered its involvement in sports in 1941 when it introduced the "Cavalcade of Sports" radio series.
For the next quarter-century, Gillette's sponsorship of most of the premier sporting events under the "Cavalcade" banner made the blade maker's name synonymous with sports. Indeed, broadcast sports became such a productive marketing venue for the company that by the mid-1950s, nearly 85% of its total annual ad budget went to the "Cavalcade of Sports." Maxon Inc. handled the marketer's sports efforts.
Televised boxing also drew Gillette's advertising dollar. The company touted the benefits of its blades to boxing's male-dominated audience, starting with local telecasts in New York in 1944 and culminating in the famous "Friday Night Fights" (on NBC through 1959, then on ABC until 1963).
Despite ventures into other sports, baseball continued to be Gillette's primary promotional venue throughout the 1950s, especially after the marketer paid a then-staggering sum of $7.37 million for six years of exclusive radio and TV rights to the All-Star Game and the World Series in December 1950.
The company used the 1952 World Series as a platform for the revised "Look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp" campaign (originally used during the 1946 series broadcast) and its "How're ya fixed for blades?" spots. The latter took off with a popular series of animated spots featuring Sharpie the talking parrot.
Gillette also broke racial barriers with its advertising in the '50s, featuring black ballplayers such as Willie Mays in TV spots. (The spots proved highly lucrative for the company, which by 1960 controlled about 60% of the blade market.)
Gillette began to diversify in the postwar era, tapping into the female market in 1948 by purchasing Toni Co., a marketer of home permanents. Under Gillette's ownership, Toni sponsored the TV hit "Arthur Godfrey & His Friends" beginning in 1950 and became a sponsor of the Miss America Pageant in 1958.
Gillette's Super Blue Blade, the marketer's first new blade in nearly three decades, debuted in late 1959. It was designed to offset inroads made by rival Schick and electric razor marketers, and was promoted with ads that stressed performance. The muted campaign marked a sharp detour from the strongly masculine character of Gillette's previous advertising, setting the tone for a more low-key ad approach that lasted for almost 30 years.
The Super Blue Blade, however, was replaced in 1963, when Gillette became the last major razor marketer to introduce stainless steel blades. Maxon continued to produce Gillette's advertising, which seemed increasingly stale for the times.
Gillette used the 1971 World Series served as a launching pad for its new Trac II razor and blades, notable for the slogan hyping improved performance: "It's one blade better than whatever you're using now," claimed TV spots in the $10 million ad push handled by Benton & Bowles.
As Gillette capitalized on the popularity of disposable razors between the late 1970s and mid-1980s, however, its marketing strategy shifted from emphasizing quality to stressing convenience.
With profits waning in the late 1980s, Gillette returned to an emphasis on the quality shave afforded by its steel blades. Under Chairman Colman Mockler and John Symons, president of Gillette's Blade & Razor Group, the advertising budget for disposables such as Good News and Micro-Trac was slashed from $9.9 million in 1987 to zero in 1990.
BBDO Worldwide, Boston, created a new campaign for Atra and Contour Plus razors centered around the slogan "The best a man can get." It was designed to reinforce the traditional image of the Gillette brand, bonding masculinity to high-quality products. Commercials positioned shaving as an emotional rite of passage and showed men as devoted family members as well as successful corporate leaders.
"The best a man can get" was launched during Super Bowl XXIII in January 1989, kicking off an $80 million international campaign that used the same visual imagery (and, in broadcast media, the same music) in 19 North American and European nations in which it ran. The slogan, translated into 14 languages, remained in widespread use for a decade.
The Sensor and Mach III
In 1990, Gillette again initiated a major ad campaign on the Super Bowl. Preceded since October 1989 by teaser ads promising "Gillette is about to change the way men shave forever," the Sensor razor campaign used the "best a man can get" slogan to pitch the Sensor's new type of blades.
In support of its first synchronized worldwide product launch, nearly all Gillette's $175 million multinational advertising budget was devoted to Sensor. The campaign, handled by BBDO, proved successful enough that Gillette had to pull some ads in April 1990 when demand exceeded supply.
With its corporate profile and market share rebounding, Gillette again pursued the women's shaving market, introducing Sensor for Women in 1992. Supported by a $14 million ad budget, TV spots touting the razor aired during prime time in the U.S., and the female market seemed suddenly receptive.
In 1998, Gillette launched its $40 million "Are you ready?" campaign, which positioned the marketer's products as a necessary part of a modern woman's physical and psychological beauty regimen.
Gillette's final major marketing development of the 1990s came in July 1998, when the marketer unveiled the Mach 3 razor. Gillette backed the Mach 3 with a $300 million promotional campaign that stressed the aerodynamic design of the razor, using jet planes and sonic booms in conjunction with the by-then familiar "best a man can get" slogan.
In 2001, Gillette launched the Venus women?s razor, built off the Mach 3 platform, but for the first time with an entirely different look, feel and brand from the men?s system it sprang from. Backed with ads featuring Bananarama?s ?Venus? and the ad line ?Reveal the goddess within,? the system quickly catapulted to the top of the category.
Faced with a newly invigorated competitor in Energizer Holdings? Schick, which launched the four-bladed Quattro in 2003, Gillette responded in May 2004 with the vibrating, battery-powered Mach 3 M3 Power system.
Gillette ranked No. 66 on Advertising Age's list of leading national advertisers in 2002. It had total U.S. ad spending of $495 million, up 6.8% over the previous year. In 2002, Gillette had U.S. sales of $3.76 billion, up 1.1% over the year earlier, and operating income of $952 million, up 78.6%. Gillette had worldwide sales of $8.45 billion in 2002, up 4.6%.
In January 2005, Procter & Gamble Co. announced that it planned to acquire Gillette for $57 billion in stock in a move that would allow it to leapfrog Unilever as the world's largest consumer products company and put it ahead of General Motors Corp. as the top U.S. advertising spender. The deal was expected to close in six to nine months.