Dyson Gets It Right

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How might we use a vacuum cleaner to suck up a quick lesson about branding? Consider the case of the Dyson vacuum cleaner – and how it changed my life forever.

The basics of the Dyson story are these: An Englishman named James Dyson became so frustrated with the poor performance and lousy suction of his personal vacuum cleaner that he set out to design a better solution. That’s how great new products usually start out – with a target audience, occasion or problem. With Dyson, it was the problem.

It might be worth explaining here that Dyson is known to be one determined guy. In the British equivalent of high school, he was a long distance runner. “I was quite good at it,” he said, “not because I was physically good, but because I had more determination. I learned determination from running.”

Did he ever. He applied that trait to his target problem, designing and creating more than 5,000 prototypes before arriving at a solution: The patented “root cyclone technology,” guaranteed to never lose suction. He pitched his invention to the major manufacturers, who all turned him down. So he took matters into his own hands and, in 1993, launched the brand that now bears his name. Dyson today claims sales of more than 15 million units worldwide.

A sure sign of successful innovation is the arrival of competitive copycats. It happened with Dyson’s bagless design as well. In the late 1990s, his company sued Hoover UK for patent infringement and won some $5 million in damages. Whoever said “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” did not work in patent law.

As a brand consultant, I love the story of Dyson’s birth and growth. As a consumer – one who formerly found no joy in housecleaning – I can’t say enough about the product.

I’m a single guy who lives with two fur-shedding cats, Izzy and Groucho. Martha Stewart I’m not. I’ll confess that there were periods of time during which most of my larger pieces of furniture were the same colors as my cats.

I was introduced to Dyson when my girlfriend brought over her parents’ vacuum to show me what it could do. Having grown up a few miles from the Hoover Company in Ohio, I’d always been loyal to my hometown brand. So I was skeptical. How could anything beat a Hoover?

The Dyson was to the Hoover what titanium is to stone. Its superior suction was obvious – the true colors of my sofa and armchairs magically reappeared. Instead of a bag that has to be changed and disposed of, the Dyson has a clear bin that lets you see exactly how much stuff you’ve collected. As the bin filled with dust and cat hair from a room I’d just “cleaned” with my old vacuum, a light appeared as if from heaven – and a voice spoke unto me, telling me that, behold, there is a better way.

The Dyson surprised and delighted me in other ways. Like the telescoping arm that makes it easy to clean high ceilings, ceiling fans and stairs. And the cleaning attachments that nest conveniently into slots molded to their shapes. And the design that lets the bin be emptied directly into the trash. Not to mention the groovy space-age colors it offers.

OK, right. It’s just a vacuum cleaner, but it’s one of the smartest devices I’ve ever seen. I ran right out and forked over $400 for a Dyson of my own. Moreover, I’m telling everyone I know that this product flippin’ rules.

How Dyson Gets It Right

Dyson reinforces some important branding smarts for all of us:

It makes a clear promise (“guaranteed never to lose suction”), and it over-delivers with all the other cool stuff the vacuum does. Does your brand make so clear a promise? Do you keep it? Do you over-deliver on it?

It solves a seemingly small problem – the pain of housecleaning – but does so in such a smart way to make other vacuums seem almost comically obsolete. What problem do you solve for your customers? What do you do like no one else? How does your company or brand make the world a better place?

Dyson is driven by something much larger than profit. James Dyson has invented smart solutions in a number of other applications; he’s not in the vacuum cleaner business as much as he’s in the curiosity business. What’s your brand’s higher calling? What are your people truly passionate about?

Consider how these lessons might apply to your brand. I’d like to hang around and talk some more, but I’m eager to get back to my vacuuming.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on August 10, 2007, in the column “That Branding Thing.” Originall co-written with David Wecker.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2007 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.