Don't Let Sacred 'Truths' Block Your Path to Profit

Marketers' Longest-Held Beliefs Often Aren't Based on Testing or Experience

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"Never use the color red on a razor. Red reminds shavers of blood. You'll drive loyal users to competitors."

That was the collective wisdom of the senior marketers at Gillette. It was a strongly held old truth among the marketing and market-research gurus in the blade-and-razor business unit at Gillette, many of whom had been with the company for 20 to 30 years. So they were in a position to know old truths.
James M. Kilts, former CEO of Gillette Co. and Nabisco, is author of 'Doing What Matters,' from Crown Books, and a founding partner of private-equity company Centerview Partners, New York.
James M. Kilts, former CEO of Gillette Co. and Nabisco, is author of 'Doing What Matters,' from Crown Books, and a founding partner of private-equity company Centerview Partners, New York.

But as I explain in my new book, "Doing What Matters -- How to Get Results That Make A Difference," you'll make a lot of mistakes if you don't challenge so-called old truths. All too often, what marketers think is based on solid facts, testing and experience turns out to be something that's just been passed along over the years. Old truths usually seem so self-evident (after all, red is the color of blood) that it's not worth the time or effort to test the premise and its validity. The Gillette illustration points out how costly that would have been.

Blue is cool
In 2001, Gillette introduced Mach3 Cool Blue, a product extension designed to increase the appeal and penetration among young users of the very popular three-bladed premium shaving system. The name of the product said it all. It was a Mach3 razor with an attractive, vibrant blue handle. Nothing more. No new features. No performance advantages. Just a new blue color. But the color did exactly what it was supposed to do. It resonated with young shavers and increased Mach3 sales by 15%.

Now fast forward about six months to a planning meeting where, as the new CEO of Gillette, I was reviewing a number of new-product options. In the discussion, I suggested that we build on the success of our blue razor by introducing a red razor. Well, based on the reaction of the marketing people, you would have thought that I had suggested selling dull blades as an innovative breakthrough.

That's when the old truth came front and center. Didn't I know that red was the color of blood? That anything suggesting blood would subconsciously tap into shavers' fears of cutting themselves? That a red razor would be a fiasco? That was a hard-and-fast old truth.

As I say in the book, I felt chastised. Our marketing people were impressive, just about as sharp as our products. On this one, however, I felt they were passing along some untested, questionable wisdom.

Heading off competition
Now fast-forward another year to a time when our arch competitor, Schick, has trumped our Mach3 with a four-bladed cartridge called Schick Quattro. Our testing told us that Quattro gave a shave that was inferior to our Mach3 Turbo. But we still needed something to blunt the anticipated $75 million marketing blitz Schick would use to launch Quattro. Gillette's next product breakthrough wouldn't be ready for another 15 months.

Reenter the red razor. Not really convinced of the old-truth validity of the cut-and-blood basis for discarding red as a razor color, I went back to our marketers and asked them to put testing of a red razor on a fast track.

The results, backed by an excellent marketing program, were staggering. The red razor became our Mach3 Turbo Champion. The concept that powered the marketing initiative was race-car-driver champions behind the wheels of red supercharged cars -- high-powered men in high-performance cars taking on the gutsy challenge of high-speed racing.

The image, symbolism and attributes were an exact fit with the brand concept. Mach3 Turbo Champion became not only the most successful product extension ever introduced by Gillette, it also stopped Quattro dead in its tracks. A year after its introduction, Quattro's share in the U.S. was 4%. Mach3's share stood at 34%. And when I met the chairman of Schick's parent company at a business function, he said he couldn't believe Gillette did all that damage with "that little red razor."

So much for the validity of old truths.
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