James Dyson: Why bother with advertising if you can get editorial?

So says vacuum-cleaner mogul James Dyson, who'll do a spot of housework himself if journalists will write about it. Sophie Morris listens in on a marketing masterclass
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The Independent Online

There have never been more ways to communicate a marketing message to eager consumers. But billionaire vacuum-cleaner entrepreneur James Dyson's favourite medium is, perhaps surprisingly, the humble journalist. "A journalist's opinion is very important," he explains in an interview following his address of the Marketing Society at their annual conference. "People trust editorial more than advertising."

Dyson turned to the press out of necessity when he was ready to launch his first vacuum cleaner in the UK in 1993, 10 years after he had first produced the shocking pink "G-Force" machine, which found cult status in Japan, selling for £2,000. With no marketing budget he hit the phones and persuaded journalists to devote priceless column inches to his invention. Although he is much busier today, unusually for the chief executive of a major manufacturing firm he still maintains a fair amount of personal contact with the press, mainly through madcap PR stunts which he hopes will provide a bit of unusual copy.

Only last year he was on his hands and knees at The Independent's offices vacuuming the floor. In October he unveiled a new hand-dryer to a roomful of expectant press. While they were busy gasping at the speed of the dryer and hearing how much more hygienic than a normal dryer the Dyson Airblade is, a few hired heavies burst on to the scene and started attacking the dryers, just to prove how sturdy they were. After the journalists had recovered from the shock, Dyson made himself available for one-on-one interviews.

Dyson should know a thing or two about selling stuff. A third of British households have one of his distinctive grey and yellow dust-suckers stored under the stairs. His Malaysian factory churns out four million of them a year and Dyson has recently overtaken its main competitor, Hoover, in the US market. In 2005, profits soared past the £100m mark thanks to impressive sales in Japan and as a result, the chief executive has just paid himself £31.5m, nearly 50 per cent more than last year.

He needs the media, be it editorial or advertising, but Dyson is distrustful of its methods. "Too many marketing campaigns and too many ads are misinformed," he tells a conference hall full of ad men and women. "We need truth in advertising, otherwise we'll all lose in the long term." Dyson believes the only trustworthy advertisements are comparative ones, which demonstrate to the consumer the technical difference between one product and another. He uses the example of Bosch, a rival in the laundry business when Dyson manufactured washing machines. Bosch continued to market one model of washing machine on its ability to do speedy washes, despite being asked to stop by the Advertising Standards Agency because the clothes were being washed quickly, but not well.

Disassociating himself from the dirty business of selling vacuum cleaners, which is what Dyson spends most of his address doing, might yet be another PR stunt. He believes that engineering and design skills are more important than communications, and that they are being neglected in the Britain at the moment. "I think advertising and marketing have too powerful a position in most businesses. Too many businesses give priority to the ad campaign rather than getting the product right."

For example, Dyson says experience has taught him that the look of a product doesn't matter. The only value of colour - his first vacuum cleaner was bright pink and the now defunct washing machine was purple - is that it can "shock and surprise people". He admits that employing these colours may have started off as a "slightly childish response to the beiges and browns". "The important thing for me as a designer is that people enjoy using my product and think that it works well and that it's their first choice. That's what I would like, rather than people going around saying they are Dysoning their home. But then I don't want them saying that they Hoover their home either."

Dyson isn't too much of a maverick to neglect the commercial aspect of his vacuum cleaner. In the early days, an independent creative would travel down to the Dyson factory in Malmesbury and chat about what the company wanted. It was the slogan "Say Goodbye to the Bag" which started to shift vacuum cleaners in large numbers in the early Nineties, rather than Dyson's preferred selling method of explaining the principle of cyclonic separation, on which his bagless machines work, to potential customers. It can't have hurt, back then, to have close friends like Sir Terence Conran - who put the vacuum cleaner in his Design Museum - and Paul Smith - who sold 300 of them from his shop floor before Dyson had a UK distributor - championing his invention.

But Dyson's own celebrity is the most important factor when it comes to selling. Man and brand are inextricably linked. He says now that his media-friendly image as figurehead of the company came about by chance: "When I was completely unknown the big retailers wouldn't take me because they said I wasn't a brand. I realised that my weakness was probably my strength. That I was an individual who had invented something which I was producing through my company, and that people might quite like buying off someone who was doing it all themselves, rather than an anonymous international company."