Pot calling the kettle black

The inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner has ruffled a few feathers with his controversial criticism of the role of marketers in product innovation. In fact James Dyson, the tireless promoter of his own range of products, is himself the ultimate marketer. By David Benady.

James Dyson really stuck the knife into marketing in his controversial speech to the Marketing Society last week.

The inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner used the talk to promote the benefits of design and engineering over branding and advertising (MW last week). He accused many companies of using marketing campaigns to “oversell” their goods and of making false advertising claims rather than creating real improvements in performance.

Marketers are “immensely powerful” in influencing innovations, he said and warned/ “We’ve become more concerned with the cerebral process of communication rather than actually making things.”

Charming, urbane and cultivated, Dyson is a stark contrast to other, less genteel entrepreneurs, such as Sir Alan Sugar. You certainly could not imagine Dyson effing and blinding. But despite his gracious demeanour, some conference attendees wondered about the validity of his criticisms of marketing, given that they conveniently skated over his own role in creating a powerful global brand.

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Was this a wilfully self-aggrandising message calculated to boost his image? It positioned him as a brilliant inventor who uses sheer technical prowess to create superior products. Not for him, the daily grind of promoting low-grade goods. Just have the best product, it’s that simple.

If this all sounds a little smug, who wouldn’t be if he had made an estimated fortune of £1bn from one of his own inventions? Dyson is a polymath who is brilliant in a number of fields – design, engineering, inventing and, irritatingly for his audience last week, marketing. But while those at the Marketing Society conference have spent years beavering away in companies by day and studying marketing textbooks by night, he just does it naturally.

The bagless vacuum cleaner he invented in 1979 was the culmination of over 5,000 prototypes, and uses cyclonic technology to separate air from dirt. The DC01 model launched in 1993 became the biggest-selling vacuum cleaner. In all, more than 20 million units have been sold, and today the company operates in 44 markets. Last year it overtook Hoover in the US. Its 2005 profits surpassed the £100m mark for the first time.

At two to three times the price of competing products, the big question is how Dyson vacuum cleaners command such a premium. Is it the simple fact that they do not lose suction as they have no bag or filter to get clogged up? Or could it be the space-age design of the machine, with its inner workings exposed to view and a modern brand image built up through advertising? Dyson argues it is the former. “The reason we are able to charge a premium is because the vacuum cleaner works better,” he tells Marketing Week. However, others believe he has intuitively managed to create a sense of desire above and beyond the function of the product. Throwing in technical jargon such as “cyclonic action” gives it a “scientific” sounding authority, a bit like an ad for women’s cosmetics.

Because it’s worth it
But Dyson plays down the idea that anything other than efficacy helps command a higher price. “Design – in the sense of how it looks and appears – is important, but engineering is more important,” he says. “If I had a choice between the two, I would say performance is more important.”

However, Mark Lund, chief executive of ad agency Delaney Lund Knox Warren thinks differently: “The Dyson price premium is purely about being seen to be better than your neighbour. It is a BMW positioning. It is a perfectly good product, but it reflects on the owner and makes them look hi-tech. A large number of middle-aged men have the beginnings of obsessive compulsive disorder and vacuuming is a way of re-establishing order in a world beyond their control.”

A little rain must fall
It should be remembered that Dyson’s foray into white goods with the “contrarotator” washing machine was ill-fated. Launched in 2000, it was withdrawn last year after poor sales. “Withdrawal from washing machines was because we were losing money from it, but we definitely want to be back,” says Dyson. “It cost too much to make, we weren’t able to get costs down, it had a lot more machinery and – more crucially – we didn’t have a supply chain that produced things economically.”

His latest venture is an ultra quick hand drier, the Dyson Airblade, which dries hands in ten seconds. Recently launched, it sells for over £500, much more than traditional hand driers.

If anything, the former art student and interior designer portrays himself as an accidental marketer. He “stumbled across” the idea of a bagless cleaner while renovating his country house in the Cotswolds, according to his profile.

But he has never studied marketing in his 59 years. “I don’t know anything about it at all,” he says. “But I have been a salesman in my time. I’ve never looked at a gap in the market, and have never been opportunistic in that sense – the hand drier was so easy because we have all waited for 20 seconds and ended up drying our hands on our trousers.”

So does he considers himself to be a brilliant marketer? “I can’t be the judge of that, marketing is done out of house. In the beginning – when I was more heavily involved – I was just saying what I’d invented, and why. I didn’t think we were being particularly clever.”

From the word go
And he rejects claims that he is meddlesome in advertising campaigns. “If I am involved at all, it is right at the very beginning, providing the engineering input and what performance it has, rather than putting the message across.”

Dyson first hired an ad agency in 2000 with the appointment of Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy (MCBD). Previously, Dyson ads were produced in-house with ad creative Tony Muranka.

MCBD called in legendary copywriter David Abbott to help script the campaign. One source says that Abbott was famously accommodating with clients and would prepare a number of different scripts for them to choose from. But ultimately, according to the source, “Dyson thought he knew more about copywriting than Abbott.” The annoying thing about Dyson is that he may well have done. The advertising returned in-house. Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest was appointed to the £4m account in 2004.

On his inspiration for his inventions, he says: “Most of them come out of problems we have every day. I do a bit of housework – I was a metrosexual from the beginning. I enjoy a bit of ironing, washing and gardening, I like using machines and it is good products that I look for.” No focus groups for him, then.

Born to sell
Last week, Dyson hired former London 2012 Olympic bid marketer David Magliano – himself a trained engineer – as a non-executive director. Magliano says of Dyson: “He’s a natural marketer. The theatrics of product demonstrations, the role of public relations, the confrontations with other manufacturers have all been part of the story of making Dyson the success it is today.”

Dyson claims that, contrary to popular belief, he is not anti-marketing. The demolition job he did on marketing last week may have been intended to provoke debate, but it rankles with some marketers nevertheless.

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