GREAT BRITISH BRANDS: Dyson - Despite his idiosyncratic attitude to advertising, James Dyson's bagless cleaner is a marketing phenomenon

It's impossible to separate the very British Dyson vacuum cleaner from its very British inventor. Together they are synonymous with innovation and legal battles against established rivals.

James Dyson was born in Norfolk in 1947. He studied furniture design and interior design at the Royal College of Art from 1966 to 1970 and his first product, the Sea Truck, was launched while he was still studying.

A few years later came the Ballbarrow (an alternative to the wheelbarrow that became market leader within three years), the Wheelboat (it travels on land and water at 64kph) and the Trolleyball (a boat launcher with ball wheels).

In 1978, Dyson stumbled across the idea of a bagless cleaner while renovating his country house in the Cotswolds. After five years and 5127 prototypes, the first bagless vacuum cleaner was born.

In June 1993, using money from sales of his new vacuum cleaner in Japan, Dyson opened up a research centre and factory in Malmesbury, Wiltshire.

Here he developed the Dyson Dual Cyclone - within two years it was the fastest-selling vacuum cleaner in the UK.

Dyson was nearly bankrupted by the legal costs of establishing and protecting his patent. It took him more than 14 years to get his first product into a shop, but it can now be bought in 22 countries and is on display in the Science Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Next, Dyson developed the Root 8 Cyclone, which removes more dust by using eight cyclones instead of two. In 2000, he launched the Contrarotator washing machine, which uses two drums spinning in opposite directions and is said to wash faster and better than traditional machines. By 2000, turnover at Dyson was £223m, up from £177m in 1998 and £34.9m in 1995.

Much of this success has been achieved without using traditional marketing techniques - the company prefers to plough 10% of its turnover back into research and development. Dyson has always been adamant that the products should speak for themselves and, particularly in the early days, he scorned the idea of using an advertising agency.

He relied instead on editorial coverage rather than paid-for advertising, believing that as well as being cheaper, editorial is more effective.

But the most effective marketing tool, Dyson believes, is word of mouth, and the company claims that even today 70% of its vacuum cleaners are bought on personal recommendation.

For Dyson, advertising is a risk because it doesn't always work - a huge spend, he feels, could have made the Dyson brand more famous, but might not have made it sell. He still favours using packaging to explain why Dyson is better than its rivals.

But when a supplier would only agree to stock the product if he advertised on television, Dyson reluctantly turned to an agency. Not surprisingly, he found the whole process desperately unsatisfactory and claimed that creatives, whom he called "ponytailed plonkers", made him "vomit".

Some press ads continued to appear, but this time they were made by Dyson in collaboration with trusted friends. An enthusiastic self-publicist, Dyson believes that if you make something you should sell it yourself - so he often appears in his own ads.

When a Belgian court banned Dyson from denigrating old-style vacuum cleaner bags, he was pictured wearing his trademark blue shirt and holding a Dyson vacuum cleaner in a press ad that had had the word 'bag' blacked out numerous times. A note at the bottom said: 'Sorry, but the Belgian courts won't let you know what everyone has a right to know'.

Dyson has sometimes shunned advertising altogether. In 1996/97, for example, the company spent its marketing budget sponsoring Sir Ranulph Fiennes' solo expedition to Antarctica and gave £1.5m to charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer.

As rivals started to manufacture their own versions, Dyson knew he would have to advertise more aggressively. In 2000, he appointed ad agency Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy to the £2m business.

The marketing strategy, however, remains true to Dyson's original principles, with an emphasis on information and education rather than brand-building for its own sake. And it seems to be working - one in every three vacuum cleaners bought in Britain today is a Dyson. His next challenge is America.

FACT FILE
1974
Dyson strikes out on his own to develop the Ballbarrow. Followed by the
Waterolla and the Trolleyball.
1986
Dyson launches his bagless vacuum cleaner in Japan after five years and
5127 prototypes.
1993
The Dyson DC01 starts retailing for £200 in the UK. By February
1995, it is the UK's best-selling vacuum cleaner.
2000
A High Court Judge rules that Hoover's Vortex has infringed Dyson's
patent on bagless dust collection.
2000
Dyson launches the Contrarotator, a washing machine with two drums
rotating in opposite directions.
2002
Dyson announces that it will shift production from Wiltshire to Malaysia
with the loss of 800 jobs. Planned US launch of Dyson.

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