FEATURE20 January 2014

An audience with the King of Shaves

Features Impact

Will King founded his multi-million pound shaving and skincare firm on the simple insight that if a product works for him, it’ll work for other people, too. He tells all to Jane Simms ahead of the company’s most ambitious launch to date.

Will King, eponymous leader of the shaving and skincare company King of Shaves, is certainly a good advert for his products. He strides into the room, fairly glowing with health, his face smooth and shining as though he’s just emerged from a close encounter with an Azor razor and a good going-over with AlphaOil.

He’s deeply unfashionable, of course, because beards are all the rage these days. What effect is that having on sales? Negligible, he says, because King of Shaves has adapted to the trend by launching a face and body styling range: “If you have a beard you can shape it, style it, edge it, trim it. Fine.”

But the beardy ‘retrosexual’ look may have almost run its course, because it’s largely related to the recession, he continues. “Blokes have gone a bit caveman: we feel a bit threatened; because our jobs are threatened, we have to protect our loved ones; we’re in a fight or flight mentality, we’re a bit rough and tough, so we’ll be a bit rougher and tougher on the eye and we’ll have a bit of stubble.”

Beard topiary aside, King is the archetypal consumer of his products – always has been and, until the day he hangs up his razor, always will be. He founded the company in his bathroom 20 years ago with a shaving oil inspired by his long-running battle with razor burn. And, as King of Shaves has developed new products – ‘software’ and ‘hardware’ – and expanded into new geographic markets, he has been closely involved every step of the way.

One of the people

He doesn’t exactly debunk conventional market research, but King points out what many executives seem to forget – that customers and consumers are human beings, “aka me”.

He explains: “Our first product was a shaving oil, and because it had stopped me getting razor burn, that was all the consumer insight I needed at that stage. As the business grows and develops, you don’t suddenly turn into someone who looks after consumers; you’re still the consumer yourself, and you have to keep asking yourself, ‘Do I like this?’, ‘Would I like to be treated like this?’. And then, I guess, the genius part of it is that if it works for me, then it might work for hundreds or thousands or millions of people.”

“If you over-examine and over-research at the start, the product or service can lose its simplicity and purity of objective because everyone’s got different opinions and wants their say”

It’s a deceptively simple notion, but – as he says – it applies to all the best consumer- focused ideas. “When you look at the elegance and simplicity of interaction with Apple products, for example, that’s the result of Steve Jobs saying: ‘This is how I would like it to behave for me and if it makes me happy, it will probably make other people happy too’.”

If you over-examine and over-research at the start, the product or service can lose its simplicity and purity of objective, because everyone’s got different opinions and wants their say, King maintains. And you can fall into the same trap further down the line, he adds, citing as an example Unilever’s revamp of Flora margarine last year.

“According to Anne Robinson on Watchdog it cost them £29m to reformulate and relaunch it, but consumers didn’t like it, sales fell and they had to go back to the original formula. People obviously quite liked the way it had always tasted, and if you start messing around with that, through ‘customer insight’ and focus groups, about what people think they might want from a margarine, you can mess it up.”

Shaving scuttle

There seems to be a certain amount of schadenfreude in his dig at the multinational corporation Unilever, which – like Procter & Gamble, the parent company of his arch-rival Gillette – rejoices in mouth-watering marketing budgets that King can’t even dream of. He doesn’t like the term ‘challenger brand’ – “that’s marketing shmarketing” – but that’s effectively what King of Shaves is. And though he claims he “didn’t set out to kick Gillette’s tyres a bit and get on its nerves,” he clearly relishes the fact that he has disrupted what he calls “the cosy duopoly” of Gillette and Wilkinson Sword – albeit with the aim of giving the customer a better deal.

“We are challenging for a better shaving experience worldwide,” he declaims, in a line redolent of a politician or an evangelising preacher. “We have levelled the playing field a bit, because we have brought in products that are genuinely better and differentiated, and the cost of razors and blades has come down violently. It’s pissed me off for years that I had to pay so much money to buy a Gillette razor cartridge. And if it pissed me off, it would have pissed other people off, too – and I am in a position to do something about it.”

King is a consummate marketer and salesman, as long-term business partner Herbie Dayal testifies. “Gillette is more than 100 years old and people have grown up believing it is the best shaving brand. You have to be a good marketer and salesman to persuade people to look at things in a different way,” he says.

What’s more, King’s ability to spot and execute a marketing opportunity on a tiny budget is legendary. The YouTube video of him at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park delivering a pun-laden speech on ‘stealth shaving taxes’ is typical of his maverick approach.

But Paul Lindley, founder of the baby and children’s food brand Ella’s Kitchen, believes King is “first and foremost a consumer guy”. He explains: “Will has built up his company on a passion for consumers that shines through every facet of the brand and the business. He never compromises on product quality or innovation, lives and breathes his brand and is always listening to and engaging with his consumers.

“I had personal experience of this many years ago before I got to know him. I emailed the company over the Christmas period with a question and recommendation regarding a King of Shaves Christmas present. Will sent me a personal email within 24 hours, followed up with excellent customer care – and he used my insight.”

Calling the shots

Despite a tendency to talk in advertising slogans, King demurs. “I’m a product guy really,” he says. “For me, the quality of the product is always paramount. The cute thing, the tough thing, is how much of the cost of goods of your amazing product you can strip out without compromising it. We have spent years working out how to make our next-generation razor as good as Gillette’s without spending as much as Gillette does on making theirs so we can free up money to market it. A big part of the innovation has been to reduce the cost without compromise to the aesthetic.”

“For me, the quality of the product is always paramount. The cute thing is how much of the cost of goods of your product you can strip out without compromising it”

The new razor, the result of more than 10 years of research – not to mention dogged navigation through the patent minefield – will launch early next year. Nevertheless, King says: “I’m not your classical entrepreneurial guy.” He studied mechanical engineering at Portsmouth Polytechnic and then got a job selling ad space on Marketing magazine. Seven months later he was headhunted by a conference and event production company, before being poached a year later by a larger competitor, more than tripling his magazine salary.

But the recession of the early 1990s forced the company to downsize and King, who, at the age of 26, had become de facto managing director “on 40-grand a year with a nice car”, eventually lost his job, too, when the business closed down. He decided his next job needed to be “a little more secure” and started to think about ideas for his own business.

“In a sense it was about taking control of my own destiny, but there was nothing strategic about it; it was forced on me. I wasn’t sitting there thinking I wanted to be the next Alan Sugar,” he recalls. “I was angry at losing my job and at the way the corporate owners had behaved and I didn’t want that to happen again.

“I’ve always been quite a momentum-creating individual,” King says. “I’ve always moved with quite a velocity. But if I get my teeth into something I will pursue it to the end, unless I’m being stupid about it. And that gives things a velocity that can be quite compelling and quite interesting. I don’t give up easily.”

Third time lucky?

If all goes to plan, his tenacity will pay off next year, not just in sales of the new razor, but also in making a success of what will be his third foray into the US. It was there that his first entrepreneurial idea took flight – before falling back to earth six months later.

He came across a man in Los Angeles who had developed a silk-screen printing process that mimicked the skin of an animal, and King was all set to launch Animal Republic Survival Gear, which would sell screen-printed T-shirts. He spent six months building up an order book with customers including Harrods, Debenhams, and London and Whipsnade Zoos, only to discover that his supplier couldn’t meet the demand and had gone to ground.

The US disappointed a second time. In 1998 the man who owned the trendy New York apothecary CO Bigelow saw King of Shaves in Harrods and Boots and wanted to take it to the US in a niche, upmarket way – a strategy that yielded annual sales of between $30,000 and $50,000. “That was OK,” says King, “but it wasn’t making anybody any money. Then Target, the US retail giant, picked up on it and we launched our shaving oils and gels there in 2000, which was great. But, of course, America is massive – each state is almost like an individual country in its own right. So there was huge difficulty in being able to spread word-of-mouth, or even advertise the product, in a way that would get people really understanding what it was about.”

Nevertheless, the US business more or less washed its face, and by 2010 was turning over about $4m. But then it entered into a distribution agreement with Spectrum Brands, which owned the electric shaving brand Remington. Spectrum merged the two brands, and it didn’t work.

King of Shaves exited the US in 2012. Older, and a bit wiser, it will return at the beginning of 2014 in partnership with the US division of its Japanese technology partner Kai.

“People think that because they speak English over there it will be easy, but the US is the hardest market of all to crack,” says King.

Cutting-edge hardware

King’s determination to conquer America is as nothing, though, compared to his drive to launch a razor that will pose a serious threat to Gillette. It’s been in his sights since he first registered the name King of Blades in 2001.

“The technology has been owned by Gillette because of their ability to have either cleverly innovated or patented – or crushed by huge amounts of money – any decent competition,” he says. “Gillette products are fantastic, of course, which is why it’s such a profitable business.”

So King of Shaves started again from scratch, learning about handles, hinges and blades, and associated technology, manufacturing techniques and patents, from firms around the world. He hopes the new razor will ‘take the company’s market share from one per cent (“which is no good”) to at least 10 per cent.

“I’ve got an app that acts like a window on the world: I can see, in real time, what people are saying about my brand, about shaving, about men’s grooming and skincare, and about my competitors”

It will have a more universal appeal than its predecessor, he believes. “The Azor polarised opinion – as did our shaving oil. This new product will be less ‘Marmite’, and that will be the result of years of testing within a relatively small environment of professional testers, before going out to consumer-beta, pre-launch and retailer testing. The Azor was the best we could do in 2008, having started work on it in 2003. What we’ll launch next year is a world away from that.”

The firm spent about £5m on Azor to secure that one per cent market share, and it has cost a lot, King admits, to develop the new razor. “I think the board probably wished we had stuck to the software,” he jokes. “But anybody can make a shaving gel, oil or serum. What we’re about to launch is unique: we own the patents and technology on it, so no-one else can make it, and it’s going to be as good as, if not better than, the competition. I have a personal desire to be one of only three principal designers, manufacturers and sellers of high-performance-system razors, rather than experiencing the scariness I found of being one among 200 to 300 men’s skincare brands, all of whom want to be the next King of Shaves.”

It will be what he calls ‘a moonshot’ launch, yet the company will spend just £1.25m ($2m) on marketing in the UK next year – a drop in the ocean compared with Gillette’s annual $530m marketing budget. King of Shaves has to box clever – and in King’s book this means “getting the consumers to do the work for you”. This depends, of course, on “giving them an off-the-scale-amazing product that they will want to go around telling other people about”.

Ready for take-off?

The product’s almost ready to go, and King will use the internet – specifically, social media – to launch it. “‘Word of mouse’ will amplify word of mouth, and once it’s out there in the public domain it can pick up a life of its own,” he says.

The company as a whole has followed much the same path. Thanks to its mix of products, as well as some attention-grabbing antics early on – including the world’s first barber chair skydive shave – King of Shaves has established itself as a worthy competitor to its bigger rivals.

But why has King succeeded when others have failed, and what keeps him in the company beyond the point where many of his peers have sold out? “Success comes down to a cornucopia of things – luck, timing, hard work, strategy, being there and getting on with it,” he says. “But you have to be always looking around, and looking beyond the obvious, to see what’s going on and why because, even in a fast-changing world, nothing should catch you by surprise.” And he enjoys it too. “It’s great fun,” he says.

According to business partner Herbie Dayal: “Will’s interested in doing things that will have an impact and make waves, not just doing an OK job, and he succeeds because he loves solving problems. Whatever area he’d gone into – or goes into next – it would have been – or will be – the same.”

For the moment King’s focus is on the new razor. “But if the right opportunity came along – one that allowed me to mix business with pleasure – things might change. I’m not going to be the kind of guy who has on his gravestone, ‘I came, I saw, I shaved, I died’. There will be something else, and I’ll know it when I see it.”

Subject natter: How Will King keeps up to speed with the needs of consumers

King is a social media convert. It makes it easier than ever to keep abreast of what consumers want, he says. “I tweet, I blog and I’ve got an app on my computer and my smartphone that acts like a window on the world: I can see, in real time, what people are saying about my brand, about shaving, about men’s grooming and skincare and about my competitors.

“We are shaving about a million people a day, and selling between 50,000 and 80,000 items a week, so there’s a constant throughput of people engaging with our product. Ninety-nine per cent of them will never comment, because if you’re happy with something you tend not to. The remaining one per cent will comment either because they’ve been amazed by our product or because they hate it.

“Hopefully, you get more people rating you than slating you, but at least you can keep in touch with people and examine the polarity of their brand experience way more easily than you could even six years ago.

“But what the social media space won’t give you, and what continues to be very important, is what 90 per cent of people are thinking,” says King. “Getting into that bulk – what the crowd’s saying – is where market research can come into play, but again, using social media to do that can make it way more dynamic than it ever was.”

And so King of Shaves augments its social media ‘listening’ with real-time analysis based on Survey Monkey questionnaires and product testing among a panel of followers, who feed back their opinions electronically.

Originally published in Issue 3 of Impact Magazine

1 Comment

7 years ago

What an inspiration he is in a marketing world that has made me so tired and cynical. Gies a job Will

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