Cut-throat battle about the best a man can get

 

The makers of two of the world's most popular razors have been taking each other to court in their fight for supremacy in a multibillion-euro market.Brian Boyd reports.

Billions of pounds are at stake, there are dark allegations of espionage and theft and small armies of lawyers are lining up to fight a bitter court battle. It's all over the best a man can get. The normally staid world of the men's razor business has been shaken up by a Coca-Cola-versus-Pepsi-style fight between the two main razor companies, Gillette and Wilkinson Sword. You could say it's a cut-throat battle.

The story begins in 1998. After spending $1 billion on research and development, Gillette loudly announced the arrival of the "revolutionary" Mach 3, the first three-blade razor. Apart from its initial research-and-development investment, the company spent $250 million making machines to produce the razor. It spent the same again promoting the Mach 3, flying journalists to its US headquarters to be the first to draw the revolutionary trio of blades across their faces.

The New York Times gave more than 10,000 words to the razor, noting enthusiastically: "Shaving has become perhaps the only business in the world where the most popular product is also the best: Gillette is simultaneously the Porsche and the General Motors of shaving." Other newspapers reported breathlessly that the Mach 3 was the product of seven years' research. The razor had "carbon-hardened steel" and "progressive blade geometry"; it was "spring loaded and contour hugging". On the day it went on sale the normally bearded chairman of the New York Stock Exchange opened the market beardless after going through the Mach 3 experience earlier that morning.

The spend paid off for Gillette. Despite its high retail price the Mach 3 soon became more than a cult consumer item. The "billion-dollar blade" was, the ads told us, "the best a man can get". In 2002 it generated $2 billion in revenue, a third of the global market.

The success of the Mach 3 prompted rivals such as Bic and Noxzema to introduce their own three-blade razors. Over at Wilkinson Sword, though, a "bigger and better plan" was being hatched. Last year, to a Mach 3-style fanfare, it announced the world's first four-blade razor. With "anti-clog technology for improved rinsability" and "advanced blade-carrier technology", the Quattro was an immediate success, eating into sales of the Mach 3.

Gillette wasn't happy. Within hours of the Quattro arriving in shops it filed a patent-infringement suit. But there was talk of espionage: how did Gillette get hold of the Quattro blade, so its engineers could take it apart and allow the company to file such a detailed suit so soon? Wilkinson Sword responded with a counter suit, claiming that the Mach 3 could no longer describe itself as the best a man can get and that the company was misleading consumers.

Gillette's main claim against the Quattro is that the positioning of its blades breaches patents established during the development of the Mach 3. It wants Wilkinson Sword's razor to be withdrawn from the market. "We view the Quattro as a clear breach of our patent," says Michèle Szynal of Gillette. "It is irrelevant how many blades a razor has; what counts is how they are positioned. It is vital we respond to protect our intellectual property, and we are confident that the court will find in our favour."

The patents at the centre of the case are extremely detailed; some describe blade angles and optimum interblade distances to the nearest millimetre.

The first courtroom battle took place in Germany in December. Significantly for Wilkinson Sword, the court found Gillette could no longer claim superiority. Wilkinson Sword said its rival would have to water down its advertising: "Gillette's leadership has been built on being the closest shave on the market, so this will shake it up." Adverts for Gillette's new Mach 3 Turbo razor, a souped-up version of its predecessor, now read: "Your best shave or your money back."

Wilkinson Sword has also launched a patent lawsuit against the Mach 3 in the US. It alleges that Gillette infringed the technology Wilkinson Sword uses to attach the blades of its razors to the handles. A US court had previously found that the Quattro didn't infringe Mach 3's patents, as Gillette had initially claimed.

The battle could last for years and be very expensive. Last year a US court ordered Microsoft to pay $520 million (€425 million) for infringing patents held by the University of California in its Internet Explorer program. Back in 1990 Kodak was ordered to pay Polaroid $900 million (€735 million) for infringing its technology. The legal battle between Kodak and Polaroid lasted 14 years.

The stakes couldn't be higher. The company that loses the case will likely have to hand over the millions of euro generated by sales of its razor - and pay huge damages for affecting the victor's commercial reputation. The case will also affect the women's razor market, where Wilkinson Sword's Intuition razor is battling against Gillette's Venus.

Since the German court decision Gillette seems to have been on the back foot.It has traditionally dominated the razor and blade market; now, for the first time, it is facing formidable competition. This new court case could affect its very future.

A short history of shaving

Early man used pieces of sharpened flint to trim away facial hair. The first primitive razors came with the Bronze Age, when they were made from gold.

Advances in razor technology changed shaving habits in the 20th century. In 1900 most men were shaved by their local barber or did it themselves at home. The barber's better-off customers would have personal sets of seven razors, labelled with the days of the week.

The first safety razor, which protected the skin from all but the very edge of the blade, was invented by a Frenchman, Jean-Jacques Perret, who was inspired by a joiner's plane.

The idea of a single-use disposable blade, which avoided the need for resharpening, came from an American, King Camp Gillette, in 1895.

Producing a paper-thin piece of steel with an edge strong enough to remove a beard was a near technical impossibility at the time, however. Although he filed patents in 1901, it was not until 1903 that Gillette could go into business.

In 1920 the Gillette razor was issued as standard to soldiers in the British army, replacing the old cut-throat. Gillette's early models had a separate handle and clamp unit for the blade, but in the 1930s it introduced a single-piece version with opening "wings" in the top, for inserting the blade.

Other razor manufacturers, such as Wilkinson Sword, produced similar safety razors but with sharpenable blades. Tiny safety razors for women, using the Gillette system, appeared in the

1920s.

The increasing popularity of the rival electric razor prompted further technical development in the late 1950s and 1960s: Wilkinson Sword introduced long-life stainless-steel blades in 1956; twin-blade safety razors arrived the following decade, as did the completely disposable one-piece plastic razor introduced by Bic.

Over time the electrically powered razor, both battery and mains, became the predominant shaving system. In the late-1930s an electric razor was the most up-to-the-minute gadget the "smart modern man" could equip himself with.

Although the claim of electric-razor manufacturers that their technology provided closer cuts than wet shaves was dubious, this new product did away with the need for water and shaving cream. Electric razors designed for women did not appear until the late 1940s.

It wasn't until the 1980s that the wet shave made a comeback, after the introduction of razors that were easier and, more importantly, safer to use. The dual blade was seen as something of a breakthrough in the wet-shave market; that was eclipsed by the arrival of the three-blade Mach 3 in 1998 and the four-blade Quattro last year.

With most men now favouring a wet shave, the battle for men's faces is being played out in the courtroom.