Everyone, the participants perhaps most of all, enjoys a good old-fashioned brand war. To supplement the veteran gladiatorial combats of Coke and Pepsi, Nike and Adidas, Persil and Ariel and the perpetual guerrilla price warfare between the main supermarket brands, we have recently been treated to a new and highly entertaining spectacle in an arena where competition had been thought dead.
The wet shave market is certainly global, and historically boasts a number of famous brand names, but Gillette, particularly after the emergence of the Sensor and Mach3 system razors, seemed to have fought everyone else to a standstill.
Not so, however, if Wilkinson Sword’s recent fight back is anything to judge by. Under new ownership (it was acquired by battery conglomerate Energizer last year for &£500m) the venerable former sword-maker has shown a cutting edge that has taken Gillette by surprise. Not only has it brought onto the market a range of formidable new products, mainly the Quattro four-bladed system razor and Intuition ladies’ razor, but shown a new spirit and aggression in marketing itself. It has successfully blunted Gillette’s attempts to mire Quattro in the law courts with alleged patent transgressions, humiliating the razor giant in the process. Its Quattro advertising campaign is fresh, where the Mach3 market leader’s macho symbolism is looking increasingly tired. Further, Wilkinson Sword has forged a promising brand alliance with King of Shaves, the up-and-coming male toiletries brand, to offset its historic disadvantage against Gillette in the shaving preparations sector.
So will Gillette, faced by this onslaught, remain ‘the best a man can get’? While Wilkinson Sword has shaken the razor giant, its progress on the ground is patchy. Sales of Intuition are apparently strong, of Quattro less so. In share of the (UK) razor blade market, Wilkinson Sword has enormous ground to make up, since Gillette can claim four of the top five selling brands. And, unless Gillette makes a serious mistake, that is unlikely to change in the near future. System razor technology, which is where the money is, demands enormous investment and is heavily protected by patent law – one of the reasons supermarkets are unlikely to break into this lucrative area with cheap brand lookalikes. Gillette, unlike Wilkinson Sword, has those resources in abundance – and is poised to launch its first new generation system since 1998 next year – which will pile extra pressure on Quattro sales.
Nevertheless, Wilkinson Sword’s flanking manoeuvre into high-margin shaving preparations, where it is traditionally weak, must be a worrying development for Gillette. Though not necessarily for the obvious reason.
In effect, the alliance with King of Shaves appears to be a holding operation until Wilkinson Sword can develop its own branded range. Which raises the interesting question of who has most to gain by it, Wilkinson Sword or KoS.
KoS is a company that has grown from zero to hero. Brainchild of entrepreneur Will King, it has quickly evolved from a kitchen-sink operation into something that commands international respect and, just as importantly, international distribution in leading retail outlets. King is even planning his own system razor… Wilkinson Sword beware.
Stuart Smith, Editor