Why Do Razors Have Five Blades Now?

I remember that when Gillette came out with their double-bladed razor, I started joking about how it wouldn’t stop until razors had five blades. At the time, that seemed absurd, but sure enough, now we can buy razors with five blades.

Now, while this may seem ridiculous, it’s actually a pretty smart response to a potentially disruptive innovation.

The introduction of the double-bladed razor was actually how Gillette responded to the introduction of disposable razors. The value proposition of disposables was: the quality of the shave is almost as good as you get with real razors, but we’re a lot cheaper.

For Gillette, this is similar to the situation that Swiss watchmakers faced with the introduction of quartz watches. The main difference is that quartz watches were both cheaper and more accurate than mechanical watches. In the case of razors, disposables were cheaper, but not better.

Gillette faced a choice. They could embrace the new technology and start making disposables themselves. Or they could double down on their existing business model.

They chose the latter. They had a quality advantage, and they have continued to invest in stretching that advantage. Instead of trying to shore up their weakness (price), Gillette put all of their energy into building their advantage.

This is what Youngme Moon recommends doing in her excellent book Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd.

Doubling down on the current strategy doesn’t always work. There are at least two conditions that need to be met:

  1. You must have a clear advantage in at least one feature that customers care about.
  2. You must be have a value proposition that is built around this advantage.

The Swiss watchmakers had built their value propositions around accuracy. When quartz watches were introduced, this disappeared. A huge number of watchmakers that had been around for centuries went out of business. The ones that made it through built on the advantages that they still had: prestige and craftsmanship.

Gillette had a clear advantage in performance. And they’ve been able to build on that. The result has been that even in the face of a potentially disruptive innovation, they’ve managed to keep a better than 70% market share in razors.

That’s why we’re probably not too far away from razors with 8 blades. This time, I guess I’m not joking…

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

5 thoughts on “Why Do Razors Have Five Blades Now?

  1. I am a reformed believer: when it comes to blades, more is better. And by better I mean safer. It is impossible to cut yourself with one of them things–I can, literally, shave my face and my head in the dark, without a mirror.

    In my case, their competition was a Norelco/Philips electric razor. It, too, was cut-free, but it didn’t leave me a smooth skin; the Gillette leaves you with baby-bottom skin. In other words, they improved performance (safety), without giving up their existing strengths (close cut) and in the process left everybody else in the dust.

    Not sure if the next “thing” for them would be razors with eight blades. They may do that and eek a few more dollars, but it won’t be disruptive to their competition. More likely, something like flexible blades that take on the shape of the skin under it or nanobots that “eat” hair or some such.

    The success vector for them is to keep bringing out innovations that really benefit their customers *and* surprise their competitors (even better if it’s something that their competitors will dismiss at first :).

    • Great points Matt. I probably should have discussed electrics too. All the trade-offs between cost, convenience & performance are interesting in this market.

      Eight blades might be excessive. But then, I would have thought that five was too!

  2. I have used this story frequently from the opposite perspective — that Fusion was a disruptive innovation to electric razors, which is the reason for its success. God knows, it was extremely poorly launched and marketed, and when it first came out, Gillette didn’t know what the advantages were that its customers valued, so they hawked it with celebrities and the traditional better, sharper, newest type of meaningless advertising.

    In fact, I dismissed this product as just a lot of hype — as a sustaining innovation that exceeded the needs of most of the market when it first came out. The market being people using disposables, double-bladed (Trac 2), triple-bladed (Mach 3) or any other brand of stick razor with disposable cartridges. After all, was a 3-bladed razor even necessary (I still used the Trac 2), and how could you justify the outrageous price for a 5-bladed cartridge? And, Gillette’s marketing reinforced this perception. It wasn’t authentic and it didn’t address any compelling reasons why I might upgrade.

    About this time, I had actually been considering buying an electric for a very specific reason. I can’t use shaving cream — it makes my face break out and pimples on a middle-aged guy don’t exactly communicate maturity and cleanliness. So, I simply used hot water, but I would almost always have a bit of razor burn, occasionally get nicks and cuts (like most of us, I think), and I wondered if an electric would solve these problems while delivering a smoother shave. I had been thinking about this for a few years, but never acted on my hypothesis because I didn’t know for sure, and couldn’t bring myself to spend a couple of hundred dollars for something that might not solve the problem and which I’d end up not using.

    Then I was walking past a Fusion display one day, and I got to thinking that it was like a poor man’s electric, and that it would potentially solve the problem or tell me whether it was worth going with a traditional electric. And hell, there were lots of things that I wasted $20 on without a second thought. I could afford to throw this away if it didn’t work. So, I made the decision to try it just for that, and grabbed one off the display.

    My experience was revelatory, and very similar to Matt’s. I haven’t cut myself once since switching over. I never get razor burn any more. The shave is smoother. And, I don’t need shaving cream. And, when I thought about it I realized that the geometry of the system was the reason why — that five blades did make a difference, however, it’s pretty hard to see how even a 6th, let alone a 7th or 8th would add anything more than a marginal improvement.

    I think many people that use the product today use it because of word of mouth, not because of the 100s of millions of dollars spent on ads. Because of people like Matt and I who tried it and enthused about why it solved a problem that other razors couldn’t. About why it was a poor man’s electric (and therefore a disruptive substitute).

    Some evidence to back up my position?
    – in 2007, a bit more than a year after its introduction at the 2006 superbowl with $5M worth of advertising and a $100M launch budget, the Fusion was the first upgrade product in Gillette’s history not to become the new bestseller
    – the intro campaign touted
    – 5 blades
    – comfort guard
    – extra trimming blade on back
    – micro-pulse power
    – on board microchip
    – low battery indicator light
    – enhanced indicator lubrastrip
    – enhanced forward pivot and ergonomically designed handle
    – spring-mounted blades
    – progressive blade geometry
    in other words, all the technical features but no compelling reason to buy (the ultimate in sustaining innovation)

    On top of that
    – the ads were boring
    – website was incomprehensible
    – no indication of who the product was for or why they should upgrade.

    In other words, the analysis of Youngme Moon is revisionist history. Gillette had crap marketing, and none of the rationale described above for its design. The product did eventually become its flagship bestseller, but only after several years and a lot of people like Matt and I discovered by accident what it was good for and spread the word.

    One last thought — this is the perfect example of how a product can be both a sustaining and a disruptive innovation at the same time. And, that it depends entirely on positioning, segmentation and messaging. Positioned as the ultimate upgrade to disposables and 2 or 3 blade razors, it was an overpriced technical innovation whose only advantage was that it had more features than previous generations of products. And, most of those features exceeded the needs of the average guy, so why would he spend this much for a razor, committing to cartridges that were 2-3x the price?

    On the other hand, when positioned against electric razors, the Fusion was an order of magnitude less expensive, and “inferior” by comparison, serving an undesirable market (people like me who wouldn’t spend $200 for the real thing). And, it had lower margins than electrics. All of which make it disruptive by comparison. I would be very surprised if I was the only one who came to the conclusion that this was a “good enough” and affordable substitute for an electric, which I could afford to not use or throw away if it didn’t work.

    I’m not sure there is a lesson in this, other than understanding what the customer values is critical, and positioning disruptively is always the best approach. Gillette was lucky, in some sense, that so much was invested in this, that they had to wait out the lackluster sales of the first couple of years, and that the product eventually caught on when Gillette’s full-on marketing stopped (and therefore stopped being offensive and insulting).

  3. Actually Gillette did come out with disposable razors, beating Bic to the US market. Disposables hurt Gillette’s margins until the Sensor in 1990 reinvigorated the permanent handle/disposable cartridge market.

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