King Camp Gillette gave his name to one of the most famous names in branding history, that of the high end safety razor with revolutionary detachable blades which also dulled less quickly than its competitors. Yes, the forenames are real and the surname derives from the Gillet family of Somerset, a branch of which came to settle in Massachusetts in 1630. That’s some American pedigree for a very French-sounding name.
Gillette (1855 – 1932) professed to Utopian Socialism, an American-style forerunner of Marxism, and held the interesting viewpoint that a business tycoon was the natural leader of social reform. He wrote The Human Drift in 1896, a book apparently outlining plans for systematized social and technological reform. The plans centre on a vast three level metropolis at Niagara Falls using the plunging river Niagara for electric power.
Where, when and in what circumstances the Gillet family changed their name to that of one of the most famous of brand names in history is not so widely known. But it was a signal decision that made two fundamental branding statements: they tried to secure one single pronunciation and ensured the provenance was firmly rooted in French soil. Not to say that Gillet is not a conspicuously French word, just that Gillette is even more so.
The pronunciation of Gillet would be open to interpretation to a French-style soft G and a vowel final ending, as in French words Giles and est, or alternatively an English-style hard G and hard final T. Gillette ensures that everyone uses a hard final T, but does still leaves the initial G open to debate and there is no way around that that one. The single pronunciation is something of a brand manager’s desideratum, a desired but quite often unachievable goal, and often is only fixed after the brand has been in circulation for some time.
The Gallicization that the Gillets opted for does a number of things: for good or ill, it suggests femininity, small size and, because it’s French, stylishness. On balance, that is a net semantic gain and benefits the brand identity, given that these are small and stylish products.
Gillette was launched by King Camp Gillette in 1903 when he sold 51 razors and 168 blades and the company was sold to Proctor & Gamble in 2005 for $57 bn.