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King of Shaves: Will King

This year’s Fast Growth Business Awards winner shares the secrets of his successful challenger brand

Following a June 2008 launch, Will King’s foray into the razor market has already resulted in a market share of almost 10%. This year’s Fast Growth Business Awards winner shares the secrets of his successful challenger brand.

When you first meet Will King, it can be hard to penetrate the soundbites. His tendency to slip into ad-speak with phrases such as “enjoy the King of Shaves without the ransom”, and  “upgrade to the King, your face and finances will thank you for it,” takes some getting used to.

His delivery even verges on the Brent-esque, every so often. “So it became King of Shaves,” he says, when telling me how his dad suggested the name after turning over the king of spades in a poker game.  “Quirky.”

But by the end of our first meeting last June, I get the impression that the catchphrases and flair are more than a tad tongue-in-cheek. After all, it is two weeks before the launch of the Azor, the first British-made razor for more than 100 years, and he is planning a pseudo political campaign to win the votes of the British shaving public by  “removing stealth shaving taxes”.

Most importantly, it’s memorable. As someone who prefers to  “zag when others zig”, likening himself to a political party pledging to introduce a shaving democracy (as opposed to  “Gillette’s shaving dictatorship”) is a smart move based on a notion that will resonate with many. There’s a reason that razor blades are the most commonly shoplifted item in the UK: for something that is a necessity for millions of men, they’re scandalously overpriced. That more competition was needed in the market was unquestionable.

“Gillette is such a powerful brand, it chooses to charge what it likes for its products, and it’s been able to do that because it’s not had any substantive competition,” King said. “For too long the great British shaving public has been overcharged for a good shave, and we’re going to disrupt that.”

Nine months later, I’m even more convinced that underneath the slogans there lies an accomplished salesman. And what a great nine months it’s been for King of Shaves. With the exception of Asda (which will follow later this year) the Azor is now stocked by all the major retailers in the UK. Starting from scratch last June, and sailing on a promise to shave closer, last longer and cost less, it’s already tracking towards a 10% handle share in the razor market.  “We’re on target to double my launch estimate of 5% of the handle market share within 12 months,” he beams.

A cut-throat market

Getting there was by no means easy. Between them, Gillette and Wilkinson Sword control around 95% of the global market for razors and blades. The former, now owned by Procter & Gamble, is the clear frontrunner, worth around $60bn.

King, who trained as an engineer, was prohibited from developing his razor until 2004, when a key patent held by Gillette on ‘open cartridge technology’ (which cuts safely but doesn’t clog), expired. This high barrier to entry is part of the reason Gillette has had a virtual monopoly on the market. (Wilkinson Sword uses a stacked blade technology, which clogs easily, he says).

“What people don’t realise where razors are concerned is that there are a lot of patents around them. It’s a very profitable business, which is why Gillette’s worth $60bn, and Wilkinson Sword, which is a weak global number two, is still worth $2bn,” says King.

One of his objectives is to bump Wilkinson Sword off the number two spot. It might sound ambitious, but he’s already achieved this in the other part of the market. His range of shaving oils is extremely popular, and was based on his need for a product no one else was offering. His skin was prone to razor rash, so after being made redundant in 1993, he researched aromatherapy and started mixing up his own oils.

The persistence he learned from cold calling in his first job, selling ad space for a magazine, coupled with an absolute belief in his product, helped secure his first listing in Harrods – and all the others since.

This time around, of course, he has been able to use his success in the shaving oils market as a bargaining tool to get shelf space for the Azor.  “A lot of retailers took us at our word that we were going to make a success of it, so there was obviously a lot of hard work in advance,” he says. He now has to live up to their expectations. Crucially, cartridge sales, which drive the growth of the brand, are doing well. A woman’s version has also just launched in Sainsbury’s.

Marketing push

When you consider that the Azor’s success so far has been supported by minimal marketing spend, it makes it all the more impressive. The launch campaign was largely viral, characterised by YouTube videos such as ‘Skyshave’, where a skydiver receives a gravity-defying mid-air shave, and one where King delivers his party manifesto at Hyde Park.

A party bus went on a six-week tour of the UK and will be out again this summer, and more than 200 million ads went out on Facebook, targeting different profiles of users with a variety of straplines and creatives.

“That sounds hugely expensive but it actually isn’t, because that hasn’t really been discovered yet by the mainstream advertisers,” he told me last year, having already delivered 675,000 impressions for £200.

The Azor clearly has its rivals worried. When we typed King of Shaves Azor into Google last June, Adwords served up a sponsored link for the Wilkinson Sword Quattro Precision. Whereas Google used to prevent companies bidding on trademarked terms, it’s now fair game.

While there’s been some debate as to whether the Azor shaves closer or lasts longer, it certainly costs less. At launch, blades were half the price of those of the Gillette Fusion. Since then, either Gillette or Wilkinson Sword have been selling their  handles at half-price, and King estimates they have spent upwards of £10m in advertising to suppress his market share or drive customers to upgrade to one of their new variants, such as the Gillette Phenom.

“We’ve probably sucked in an additional £15-£16m worth of consumer or trade spend since the launch,” says King.  “We’ve spent offensively on top of that, and our spend is going to increase this year. So it’s a good time to be a buyer on the men’s grooming section.”

His own increased spend will take the shape of a major above-the-line ad campaign to grow his market share to 15-20% by 2010 and support his global expansion plans. The initial two-week campaign, launched on April 6, will run across 850 high visibility 48-sheet posters, in and around major cities including London, Manchester and Birmingham. This will be followed by a TV campaign and will kickstart an annual £5m of marketing spend as King aims to make the Azor the number one selling handle by the end of the year.

But why, after using low-cost, viral methods so effectively, is he upping his spend to such a degree? I gently remind him that last year he told me, “cash is just a substitute for using your brain”.

“When we launched we had zero cashflow coming out of the brand. Now we’ve proven the brand is tracking towards heavy multimillion pound sales this year, we’re able to take a slightly different view on the investment, and up the marketing budget to run as a high percentage of sales,” he says.  “We’ve got to make a success of it in the UK to then prove to overseas retailers that they can get the same market share.”

And rest assured, he’s still doing things differently. With his black and white posters bearing the strapline: ‘Better because it bends’, he is aiming to differentiate himself from razor ad clichés. It’s a smart move. The Gillette Champions advert, starring Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Thierry Henry looking purposeful and manly, was panned by bloggers and voted as the worst TV ad of 2008 by Campaign.

“We’re now looking to run a very eye-catching, suitably cool and stylish ad campaign, that puts us in a completely different space to Gillette and Wilkinson Sword, who typically use rugged male imagery, lots of product features and benefits, lots of pack shots and lots of obvious,” says King.

“If you’re halfway through using one of the competitor’s products, you’re hardly going to run and chuck that away and come straight to us. So we need something that will stick in somebody’s mind over a long period of time.”

Going global

As mentioned, marketing will pave the way for international expansion. The Azor will launch in the US, Brazil and Japan over the next few months, and he’s aiming to be in Australia and New Zealand by the end of the year. King wanted a campaign that could be globalised. He likens his approach to that of Apple, using two or three images to reinforce the look and feel of the brand and make it stand out in an iconic way, rather than chopping and changing the imagery by market. “We need to go very strategic and very cohesive,” he says.

He also intends to capitalise on sterling’s weakness through exporting. “With the pound being $1.39, whereas this time last year it was about $2, obviously as an exporter manufacturing the majority of your product here, clearly that frees up some additional marketing margin which is very useful. That’s similarly the case in Japan, where the Yen was 212 six months ago, and now it’s about 139. That’s effectively a 30-40% currency swing in our favour, and therefore we’ve really got to make that work to our advantage.”

Growing strong

After surviving sales of £300 and a £30,000 loss from credit card and loan debts in his first year, he learnt some good business practices. Like all suppliers to major retailers, he’s had to contend with extended payment terms.

“A lot of retail partners have hardened up their acts, which has made it harder to manage working capital and keep on top of cashflow,” he says. “But it’s hit a lot of smaller companies harder. Retailers want to sell more of less brands, so if you’re bringing new products to the market this year, it’s a lot harder to get shelf space than it was this time last year.”

Of course, his rivals’ vast marketing budgets have thwarted some of his plans. “We’ve been outbid by the bigger companies on a lot of trade marketing opportunities that we’d normally be able to get, like getting a secondary location, purely because our purse isn’t as big as Procter’s is,” he says.

However, he feels the Azor is well positioned to prosper:  “Our sales are tracking upwards, I would say low double digits across our brands, because people are looking for more value orientated offerings.”

Indeed, King of Shaves is not the only brand run by the KMI Group, the company he founded with Hiten Dayal in 1993. KMI’s portfolio includes a successful fragrance licensing partnership with Ted Baker, men’s and women’s hair styling brands Fish and Angel Fish, and a licensing deal with Ministry of Sound for Hed Kandi. Retail sales in 2008 topped £61m (sales in 2007 were £26m and when we first met, he was anticipating £35m last year).

The aim now is to drive sales between £75m and £100m in the next few years. King is characteristically upbeat.  “The gloves are off and we’ve got to step up to the challenge. I’ve got to come through on my belief and my promise that we can change the face of shaving for the better. It’s not going to be easy, and there are going to be some hurdles for me to jump over, but I’ll just jump higher to get over them.”

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