The Wall Street Journal obtained the marketing materials for Gillette's new razor, the ProGlide FlexBall. It's a men's razor that does what every other men's razor since time immemorial has done – removes hair from your face – but with "a swiveling ball-hinge" that the company says will make it easier to get a clean shave. It will retail for $11.49 and $12.59, depending on whether you want the battery-powered version or not, and Gillette is planning to sell $188 million worth of the things in the next year alone.
I won't mince words: ProGlide FlexBall is a bad idea. A really bad idea. In fact, the razor represents everything terrible about America's innovation economy.
By now, everyone knows how razor companies make their money. They sell you cheap razor handles, then burn you later with expensive cartridge refills. On top of that business model, Gillette and other market leaders introduced an arms-race component to the industry – going from two blades to three, then to four and five and six. Each new blade adds only a smidgen of extra utility, but it convinced gullible customers that they needed to upgrade their models every few years to stay current.
These twin strategies created a $3.7 billion industry, with Gillette controlling more than 65 percent of the market. A few years ago, though, something happened that threatened Gillette's dominance. Upstarts like the Dollar Shave Club began exploiting the obvious – namely, that it shouldn't cost $20 for a pack of razor cartridge refills – and began to shave away (sorry) some of Gillette's competitive edge by selling razors for cheaper over the internet. The shaving industry, as they say in Silicon Valley, had been disrupted.
Procter & Gamble, Gillette's parent company, had a few options for responding to the disruption. It could have lowered Gillette's prices, and accepted that its profit margins would take a hit in exchange for preserving its market share. It could have thrown more money into research and development for a completely new, whiz-bang product – an affordable home laser hair-removal system, for example, that would eliminate the need for razors altogether. It could even have copied the upstarts and introduced a mail-order razor club of its own while it figured out the next big thing.
Instead, Procter & Gamble – a company whose scientists once led the way on American innovation, coming up with revolutionary products like laundry detergent – decided to go with a glorified marketing gimmick. According to the Journal, Gillette plans to spend $200 million promoting the ProGlide FlexBall, with a campaign that centers on telling people that "the blades miss 20% fewer hairs with each pass and that it can cut each whisker 23 microns shorter — about a quarter of the width of a strand of human hair."
Even if the new razor is more effective than old ones (which I doubt), a swivel ball that gets facial hair 23 microns shorter isn't a "moonshot." It's not even an across-the-street-shot. It's a dumb novelty that is meant to trick customers into believing that their old, swivel-free razors are outmoded, and that they should pony up for the new model. And what's worse is that it will probably work.
To Procter & Gamble's credit, the company does still produce real innovations from time to time, like a new plastic packaging process, patented last year, that allows for much thinner containers. But the cruel reality of the bottom line means that for every genius engineer trying to revolutionize an industry with something totally new, there are dozens of Ph.D.'s coming up with swivel-balls for razors. P&G spending its multi-billion-dollar R&D budget on gimmicks is the Fortune 500 equivalent of Peter Thiel's "we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters." And it's the same market-driven myopia that explains why Silicon Valley is full of copycat start-ups chasing the same dumb concepts (Uber for laundry!) instead of churning out real, creative products.
There are still important innovations happening in America. (Here, for example, is a story about a new, MIT-developed gadget that will make it possible for the blind to read printed text.) But too often, because of both investor pressure and their own short-termism, start-ups and corporations opt for the easy, lucrative advancement over the hard, structural change. Meanwhile, China is 3-D printing houses.
Luckily, you can protest Procter & Gamble's latest absurdity pretty easily. Just do what I do – buy cheapo razors from an internet wholesaler. They're as good as Gillette's razors, for a fraction of the price. Alternately, you could just grow a beard.