Disrupting Gillette

I found myself giving a couple different personal care companies a try recently. One was Harry’s, and the other was Walker & Co. These experiments stemmed not from my dissatisfaction with my current product (a Gillette Fusion pro-glide), but my general interest in disruptive innovation.

I am coming at this question from an interesting perspective. My wife is an alum of Gillette, and was around to see the transition of that company as it changed hands and became a part of P&G. As a result, I have a couple unique POV’s.

1. I happen to be pretty indifferent to price at the moment, given that I have a healthy supply of razors at home and my hair is such that I don’t really need to switch that often.

2. I have tremendous appreciation for the level of science and innovation that have gone into the best-of-breed Gillette products. As Jeff Raider from Harry’s remarked to me when we chatted on the phone, this isn’t like the eye-glass industry. There is real IP and decades of effort around optimizing performance that the new players need to deal with.

3. That said, I see P&G as struggling immensely to manage this business. Gillette was largely a performance and product driven company, and P&G is a mass brand-driven company. This has led to confusing market positioning, stalled innovation in product development, and a mega-mass market focus that I think make the category super vulnerable.

So, what did I think of these experiences?

I think Harry’s is a solid product, with beautiful branding. But there are a couple product issues that I know the team there is working hard to address. I believe these are solvable, and the fact that Harry’s owns their own facility gives them a shot to be a performance player over time. I haven’t tried Dollar Shave Club, but it will be interesting to see how this approach unfolds. DSC seems like the low-end player disrupting largely on price and go-to-market, and it seems to be working well given their recent market share numbers. But Harry’s is making the bet that ultimately, they can be the next-gen Gillette – a performance oriented product with a more aspirational brand (and hopefully, still cheaper prices).  Will Harry’s be able to deliver on this brand promise?  Will DSC need to start spending a lot more on product innovation or else see marketing efficiency and retention decline? Time will tell.

But I think the most interesting company in this category is Walker and Company. I gave their product Bevel a try, and found it really cool. When big incumbents are disrupted, the successful new company often goes after a niche market and beats incumbent in a non-core attribute.. Walker and company is doing just this – going after the niche of men that have sensitive skin and suffer from razor bumps.  Because of this, their product is completely different – an old-school, but beautiful double-edge razor.

I’d argue that the core attributes that most razor companies go after are shaving closeness (Gillette) and price/value (Schick). Going after skin irritation (which is a rampant issue for people of color) is a brilliant approach towards this market.  It’s something that all shaving companies seem to care about, but is definitely not priority #1 or priority #2 when they think about their product strategy. It also allows them to make a product that feels like a luxury, precision instrument with pricing that is sort of apples-to-oranges to compare (each Bevel package includes 60 razors). It’s a total judo move.

Ultimately, I’m probably going to stick with Fusion for now, but it’s really cool to see smart companies with a commitment to great products start to get some traction in the market. It will be exciting market to see unfold. For a long time, I thought that Gillette was unbeatable.  But It’s pretty clear that now is the time that this is no longer true.

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