February 8, 2007

Bic

And the man behind the brand is...
Marcel Bich

In 1945 Milton Reynolds introduced the first ballpoint pen in America. It sold for a pricey $12.50 but created a sensation when it hit the market. In 1949 Marcel Bich introduced another ballpoint pen. It was non-refillable, encased in a simple plastic stick and sold for as little as 19 cents. It created a revolution when it hit the market.

Marcel Bich was born in Turin, Italy to French parents in 1914. By age 18 he was working the Paris streets peddling flashlights door to door. After a stint with the French Air Force Bich landed a job with a French ink manufacturer. His career was interrupted by World War II and in post-war France he raised $1000 to buy a leaky shed in the Paris suburb of Clichy where he set out to make parts for fountain pens. In his spare time he worked on a disposable pen which could be used reliably and thrown away when the ink ran out.

The world had plenty of inexpensive ballpoints when the Bic, with the “h” dropped for simplicity, was introduced. They were also disposable - mostly because they leaked, smeared or clogged. The Bic disposable, however, worked with the fluidity of high-priced, prestigious ballpoint pens. By 1955 Bich was selling two million pens each week in France and millions more across Europe.

Marcel Bich then looked across the Atlantic where Americans were embracing the new “throwaway culture” like nowhere else. In 1958 Bich purchased the Waterman Pen Company, a Connecticut-based firm that had pioneered the fountain pen 75 years earlier but never saw the ballpoint pen coming. Bich gobbled up 60% of Waterman’s stock and unleashed his Bic pen on America.

Americans had no trouble resisting the charms of the 29-cent point ballpoint. The market had been flooded by shoddy pens by this time. To convince the skeptical consumer that his pens were different Bic launched an aggressive advertising campaign behind the theme, “writes first time, every time.” Americans watched live television commercials featuring clear plastic Bic Crystal pens drilled through walls, fired from guns, and strapped to the feet of ice skaters - and come up writing.

Bich moved his pens from traditional stationery stores and sold them in grocery stores and at checkout counters and within ten years it was hard to find an American student going to school without a Bic. Bich was selling 500 million pens a year in the United States by 1967 - more than two for every American.

Bich next took his reputation for inexpensive, yet reliable products to disposable cigarette lighters. Gillette got to the market two years ahead of Bich with its Cricket in 1970 when the assault began. Americans were enticed to “Flick My Bic” and they did - by 1984 Gillette pulled the Cricket from the market. Bich chased Gillette again in disposable razors in 1977 but this time the Good News disposable razor held on to its market share.

It was not the only American invasion where Marcel Bich came up short. Like another European magnate before him, Thomas Lipton, Bich set his sights on yachting’s America’s Cup. In 1970 he built and raced the “France” for $3 million but lost in Newport, Rhode Island when the yacht got lost in the fog. It was a rare time when Marcel Bich’s vision was obscured.

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