The inventor as pitchman
Who: James Dyson
Brand identity: Better living through better engineering
Brand extensions: Dyson Appliances; three books; an engineering school
Entrepreneurs have a long history of using their names to launch household brands, from Ford and DeLorean to Bloomberg and Dell. But James Dyson -- whose $1 billion company makes those amazing bagless vacuum cleaners -- has taken the self-branding concept a step further by becoming the public face of his Dyson appliances.
Dyson will tell you that when it comes to marketing, "I don't really understand it." Nonsense. "I decided to call it a Dyson because one of the big differences between me and my would-be competitors was that I owned the business, I designed the machine, and I was making it," he says.
That story -- and his self-deprecating wit -- alone would distinguish the 60-year-old engineer from company founders in history who have simply slapped their names on products. And now Dyson is proving what real self-branding can accomplish. When it came time for U.K.-based Dyson Appliances to enter the U.S. market in 2002, Dyson took the role as the sole pitchman for his vacuums, which he'd been selling in Europe and Japan for nearly a decade. Working with the Fallon ad agency in Minneapolis, he launched a $30 million ad campaign. The television commercials starred the vacuum and Dyson, who explained how he came up with his invention and how it could suck dirt with the force of a hurricane and never clog. Dyson's affable "Mr. Wizard" charm clearly won over viewers. Dyson and his machines then made cameo appearances on Friends and Will & Grace, which put him on the talk-show circuit. Was it worth the $30 million? The company now sits on 25 percent of the U.S. market. "The commercials were not my idea at all," Dyson explains. "But someone said, 'Why don't you explain how you did it?' -- and that's exactly what I did."
But behind the marketing was the machine. "I sound like I'm blowing my own trumpet a bit, but it was actually quite difficult to make it work," Dyson says of the first model he built. "It took 5,127 prototypes."
And behind the unassuming persona is a man who has all kinds of plans, though he can't talk much about them lest rivals catch wind of what he hopes to patent next. Dyson's already ventured into designing a better washing machine and electric hand dryer, and he's published three books: an autobiography, a history of great inventions, and a guide to design icons. He sends boxes of vacuum cleaner components to children's classrooms and recently invested $25 million in a school for young adults that will espouse his theories of creative engineering. Oh, and he's managed to get his machines -- and his name -- into 28 different museums, including New York's Museum of Modern Art.