Last month in the USA and Canada, the shaving giant Gillette, reacting to no public demand whatsoever, launched a five-bladed razor. Hundreds of millions of men, after all, are very happy with the world's most popular razor, the three-blade Gillette Mach 3. But the latest one makes the amazing claim to provide the ultimate in smoothness by cutting whiskers below skin level.
Shops across North America were piled high with the new Fusion model, its blue and orange body made in Poland and costing $10 (about £6), with an accompanying packet of eight blades costing a startling $25. A powered version based on that strange vibrating Mach 3 Turbo (the weird one with the battery, like a sex aid with a cutting edge) costs even more - $15 for the razor and $17 for four cartridges.
The launch of the Gillette Fusion is being supported by a massive campaign, with adverts scheduled to haunt every major macho sporting event this year. As their names suggest - Fusion, Xtreme, Mach 3 Turbo G-Force - razors are the one product for which marketers can safely pretend that women don't exist.
The market for "grooming involved" men, as those fussy about shaving are called in the industry, is vast. Unless al-Qa'ida takes over the world any time soon, it will only get bigger. About 1.7 billion men remove facial hair, 1.3 billion of them with blade and razor. Each of those customers shaves 20,000 times in a lifetime, spending 139 24-hour days removing 27ft of facial fuzz. Seventy per cent of those 1.3 billion wet shavers, furthermore, favour Gillette over its hated rival, Wilkinson Sword, a company founded in 1801 as George III's preferred bayonet supplier.
The Fusion development and launch costs will exceed even those for the Mach 3 in 1998. Back then, Gillette spent $750m on development and another $300m on marketing. The Boston-based company expects to generate at least $1bn in annual sales of the Fusion by 2008. Such spending clearly works for Gillette, which has the luxury of being able to boast that Mach 3 blades are the most-stolen retail item in the world. Fusion became an instant bestseller the moment the razors appeared; they are already being offered on eBay to impatient international shavers.
The British launch of the Fusion is scheduled for the autumn. It, too, will be large, male and hairy - at least before the five-bladed Fusion has cut its swathe through the sportsmanly stubble, as it doubtless will in our TV ads. David Beckham, who could conceivably by then be England's World Cup-winning captain, is already under contract to Gillette, and the Wales rugby star Gavin Henson has been signed up as another smooth face to promote the brand's biggest sales-push since the hugely successful launch of its three-blade razor.
The launch of the Fusion is the latest offensive in the bitter, chronically litigious razor war that broke out in 1971 between Gillette and its sole mass-market rival, Wilkinson Sword, known in the USA as Schick. That year Gillette, with its twin-blade Trac 2, changed 67 years of tranquil shaving history dating back to founder King Camp Gillette's patenting of the safety razor in 1904.
Since then, a competition in possibly bogus technical gainsaying has been played out. It's known in marketing as "sneakerisation", in honour of the panache with which the trainer industry manages to sell increasingly flimsy and outlandish designs for ever-higher prices.
Gillette has historically called the shots in this razor war. It enjoys a huge worldwide sales advantage over Schick/Wilkinson Sword, which is now based in St Louis. With several lawsuits and countersuits constantly on the go, the companies can fairly be said truly to hate one another - especially since Gillette was unnerved in 2003 by Wilkinson Sword's brilliant and somewhat insolent introduction of the Quattro, a four-blade beast of a razor, which captured Gillette's jealously-guarded "most blades" title and has held on to it for the past three years.
Since the Quattro came out, shavers everywhere have known that something with even more blades would inevitably arrive. The American equivalent of Private Eye, The Onion, carried a spoof piece last year, supposedly an interview with a Gillette executive, headlined "Fuck it - we're doing five blades". (The joke wasn't new; the first broadcast of Saturday Night Live included a mock ad for a three-blade razor, with the slogan "Because you'll believe anything".)
With blade inflation having risen to an arguably ridiculous five, the Fusion launch has been greeted with a mixture of hilarity, scepticism and grudging respect. Under the admirable headline "2006: A Face Odyssey", a Texan newspaper christened Fusion "the Ferrari of razors", but quoted the proprietor of a Dallas men's grooming boutique as saying: "Their five-blade is really just about one-upmanship - one more than the Schick Quattro. Where will it all end? Maybe 10 blades by the end of the decade." In Toronto, a barbershop owner quoted in the press was equally unmoved, putting the Fusion down to "a gimmick for meeting the testosterone levels of CEOs".
So I put it to Gillette's vice-president for communications, Eric Kraus, that the Fusion is, surely, not much more than a joke response to Schick/Wilkinson Sword's impertinent Quattro? Doesn't the Mach 3 already offer "the world's best shave"? The ads say so. And only last month in Britain, the powered Mach 3 won a 2006 Product of the Year award.
Kraus reacts as if I had cut him with all five blades. "You just can't get away with gimmickry in the men's shaving market," he says. "If men don't like new product, they will never buy it again. It's as simple as that. We have been testing the Fusion for a long time on hundreds of men. Two to one preferred Fusion to Mach 3, while nearly three to one preferred it to the Quattro."
Work on the new razor, which he revealed was developed in England by a 100-strong team at Gillette's research centre in Reading, was started long before the Quattro appeared. "The Quattro was no surprise. We weren't not expecting it to come along when it did," he insisted. "And we were already working on Fusion, anyway. Something this big is a lengthy process. There are 75 patents being filed for this one new product."
So is it all gloom at Sword House, Wilkinson Sword's British headquarters in High Wycombe, at the prospect of another killer product emerging from the opposition just after its own Gillette zapper? On the surface, things don't look good for the company, whose website was yesterday still proclaiming the Quattro to be "The World's First 4-Blade Razor", under the slogan "Get Ready 4 Action".
The Quattro's sales performance has boosted its market share against Gillette, but only by 3 per cent or so. It may cut beards well, but it never quite cut the commercial mustard. Even its associations haven't been as slick as Gillette's. Quattro is partnered with The Sun and is also, a little unfortunately, the Official Male Grooming Partner to Manchester United - although both parties are having a tough time just now and may be relieved that the deal ends this year.
It's also been an embarrassing year for Wilkinson Sword in another way. In September, the company had to announce that it was giving up on making swords after 200 years of providing them for ceremonial purposes. Britain's dwindling band of sword fanciers are now directed on the website to the online British Defence Equipment Catalogue - and, you would imagine, to the police too.
But Wilkinson Sword has a winner up its sleeve - or so it gamely claims. Its Titanium model, being launched first in the UK, is being promoted not on the number of blades it has, but on the special substances they are coated in to make them whisk through the whiskers more readily. The innovations are also supposed to make the blades last longer - a likely draw for customers convinced that expensive modern blades go blunt after a couple of shaves.
Nick Powell, the business director for Wilkinson Sword UK, says the Quattro Titanium also has "a rubber guard that stretches the skin and stands up the hair, plus aloe vera and vitamin E lubricating, soothing and conditioning strips." The Titanium is being carefully priced rather lower than what the Fusion is likely to cost here. So how will the Fusion razor, with blades at a possible £3 each, go down in economy-conscious Britain?
Gary Stevens has worked at the Mayfair salon of George F Trumper, London's most traditional barber, for 15 years. It is one of few places where clients can still be shaved with an old-fashioned "cut-throat" razor. Stevens, like his US and Canadian counterparts, is sceptical about the products.
"I'd just like to know what all these extra blades are doing," says Stevens, who gives hour-long shaving lessons at Trumpers to DIY shavers. "The Mach 3, which is brilliant, and which we use for about 80 per cent of customers, already takes off two or three layers of skin cells, so I can't imagine how much better the Fusion could be. I'm intrigued, and really looking forward to getting my hands on one."
As for whether five blades really is the end of the line for razors, Eric Kraus has intriguing news: "We never launch a new product without its successor being in development. The next generation of Gillette is well advanced - and it doesn't necessarily have more blades. Blades alone do not make a new razor."
On the other hand, he'd have to admit that seven blades might be kind of interesting.
The cutting edge
* The earliest razor with a safety guards was Frenchman JJ Perrett's "guard razor", patented in 1762.
* The safety razor as we know it began one morning in 1895, when the American travelling salesman King Camp Gillette was inspired while shaving and decided to design a razor with a disposable blade.
* The Gillette safety razor was patented on 15 November 1904.
* The first double-blade safety razor was produced by the American Safety Razor company in 1942.
* Stainless steel blades were introduced in the early 1960s; longer-lasting tungsten blades followed in the 1970s.
* The two-blade Gillette Trac 2 arrived in 1971. Gillette introduced the lubricant strip in 1985 and the spring-loaded Sensor in 1990.
* In 1998, Gillette goes triple with the Mach 3, followed in 2003 by the four-blade Schick Quattro.
The most hyped a man can get? Fact and friction in the razor wars
Could a five-blade razor really be worth its considerable price? The shaving market has always been a minefield of scientific claims, secrecy and rebuttals. The phenomenally successful Mach 3, according to Gillette, included engineering twiddles such as "open cartridge architecture" and an ergonomic handle featuring "knurled elastomeric crescents", no less.
There are also continual claims made by both Gillette and Schick/Wilkinson Sword about their respective blade coatings, which are intended to minimise the skin-irritating friction caused by a succession of blades scraping across the face. In May last year, a federal judge in the United States, acting on a lawsuit brought by Schick, stopped Gillette from claiming that the vibration feature of its Mach 3 Turbo lifts hair "up and away from skin". The judge ruled that there was insufficient scientific evidence for this.
Gillette had, on the day the four-bladed Quattro was launched in 2003, filed a patent suit against Schick. Gillette said at the time, a little sniffily, that "it takes more than four blades to make a great shave."
Now, in defence of its own five-blade offering, Gillette maintains that the engineering principle involved is "the hysteresis effect" - meaning that the blades work in concert to pull whiskers out from the skin as they machete into them. "The second and subsequent blades engage the hair further down the hair shaft," the company says. Thanks to that "crucial" fifth blade, they assert, "the hair is actually cut a little below the skin's surface."
The blades for the Fusion are manufactured in a factory in Berlin in what is called a Class 5000 clean room, which has an environment more pure than any operating theatre. But that doesn't mean that skin specialists are thrilled by the evolution of the five-blade razor. Dr Ezra Kest, a dermatologist to the stars in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, was quoted in the US press as saying: "When you add more blades, there's a greater chance of nicks and razor burn. I always tell my patients not to use more than two blades."
Britain's leading knife and cutting edge specialist, Roger Hamby of the Cutlery Allied Trades Research Association in Sheffield, is also unexcited by the five-blade revolution. "I have not yet tried it," Hamby says, "but from having watched hundreds of people shave, as I have done in trials here, the only possible advantage I would expect to find is that some people may be able to shave quicker. For a few men, the five blades might pick up some hairs that the three and the four miss."
Hamby accepts Gillette's claim that the five-blade razor cuts whiskers under the skin's surface, but he adds that both Gillette and Schick/Wilkinson have made the same claim for their existing three- and four-blade razors. "It's like pulling up a weed in the garden, when the bit that's left, having been tensioned, shrinks back into the ground.
"The reality is that the Holy Grail of closeness was reached more than 30 years ago with the first twin-blade razors," Hamby concludes. He doesn't think he will be a Fusion customer when the product is introduced in the UK.Reuse content