Dyson Overtakes Hoover: A Lesson in Marketing


This remarkable piece of news from the Times (of London) the other day:

"HOOVER, the once ubiquitous icon of postwar domesticity, is being put up for sale by its American parent company as sales of the pioneering vacuum cleaner have dropped to unsupportable levels in the face of stiff competition from Britain’s Dyson.
There was a time when more than half of American households used a Hoover-branded vacuum cleaner. Today, that number is dwindling rapidly. Sales of the Hoover, which was invented in 1907 by Murray Spangler, a janitor from Ohio, have been all but destroyed in the United States by the British-designed Dyson."

Hoover's marketshare went from 19.5% in 2004 to 13.5% in 2005, and Dyson's did the exact opposite, from 13.8% to 20.7%. For someone such as myself who grew up in England, where "hoover" is treated as a verb (as in, "I'm hoovering the sitting room"), this is really quite astonishing. Especially so since it's an English company that has usurped them and there's so few manufacturers really left in England any more. So hats off to Mr. Dyson.

Not to throw cold water on things, but I do want to question one aspect of Dyson's marketing, however. I wonder if this frequently cited statement strikes anyone else as odd?

"In 1978, James Dyson noticed how the air filter in the Ballbarrow spray-finishing room was constantly clogging with powder particles (just like a vacuum cleaner bag clogs with dust). So he designed and built an industrial cyclone tower, which removed the powder particles by exerting centrifugal forces greater than 100,000 times those of gravity. Could the same principle work in a vacuum cleaner? James Dyson set to work. 5 years and 5,127 prototypes later, the world's first bagless vacuum cleaner from Dyson arrived."

 (Emphasis mine.) Let's think about this for a second. This translates to:

  • 1000 prototypes per year
  • 20 per week
  • 4 prototypes per business day

For me at least it makes me wonder how Mr. Dyson is defining prototype, especially since many of these were apparently created literally in his garden shed, so presumably without benefit of the 350 engineers he now has on staff. This stretches my sense of credulity that building that many working physical prototypes that quickly is a) possible by one man, and b) necessary for advancing knowledge forward to building the final product (though I'd be happy to be shown otherwise). It does make good marketing though, and every article you read cites it unquestioningly.

Perhaps the lesson that Hoover should take away is that, yes, they have to be more innovative with their product design, but they also have to a compelling story behind it. Can you say what values Hoover stands for and what it means to your life? Both Dyson (and for that matter, iRobot, the makers of the Roomba) can answer that easily.