The razor and the blade have taken on largely metaphorical meanings in the era of “Free.” Products and services are bundles of threads, some free, some advertising supported and others with a variable or fixed price. The razor itself is free or low cost, and the consumer pays for disposable blades which subsidizes the cost of the handle. Cellular phones use this pricing model. Chris Anderson posits that this model will become dominant, with a digital component naturally tending toward a price of zero.
If we take a moment, and look—not at the metaphor, but at actual razors and blades, we’ll learn a great deal about how the “Free” business model will develop. The Holy Grail of the shaving world is the “close shave.” And, of course, the close shave imbues the shaver with extraordinary attractiveness and social power. It becomes the almost unattainable object of desire. The companies that make shaving equipment have brought together the world’s best scientists and storytellers to create a compelling narrative. The road to a closer shave can only be achieved through multiple blades and high-level engineering. The five-blade razor has emerged as the pinnacle of shaving science.
The simple razor and blade have been transformed into a technology experience beyond the understanding of the average Joe looking to rid himself of five o’clock shadow. Along side the production of the physical product is the production of desire. The act of shaving requires ever greater efforts, continual progress— we’ll pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of the close shave.
The world of shavers has been tightly wrapped in the dream narrative of the progress of shaving and its technology. It turns out the “Free” part of the product is not the critical factor, it’s the production of desire. The essential ingredient is the creation of a strong narrative beyond which the consumer cannot see or imagine.
Every extreme engenders a backlash, and the five-bladed razor may have tipped the scales. Step outside the dream of the technology of the “close shave” for a moment and consider a double-edged single razor blade that performs better than the latest five-bladed technology. Could “one” be superior to “five?”
Of course, we need our dreams, our goals, our destinations— the humble razor and blade provide an excellent example not just of the economics of a business model, but of how the production of desire influences the engineering of the product. “Free” is the taste, the invitation to the dream.