Keeping It Simple

12 September 2005

BIC Sells 100 Millionth Ball Point Pen

Baron Marcel Bich is not a household name, largely because of the “H” at the end. But his BIC disposable pens are an integral part of modern life. Before he started turning out his goods, ballpoint pens constantly leaked and were rather expensive at $5 in the 1940s. Monsieur le Baron’s company, now run by his son Bruno, changed all that, and last week sold its 100,000,000th pen.

The BIC pen, known in some places as a “Biro” after Laszlo Biro who sold his patented design to the Baron, is a case study in product development and marketing. Until literacy became ubiquitous, there was little need to move beyond quills, brushes and fountain pens. But once deliverymen, factory workers and other non-office jobs required some permanent writing the pencil wasn’t going to suffice. A cheap but reliable pen was needed, cheap enough that if it were accidentally left behind, no one would care.

Bruno Bich explained, “My father told me that one day he was pushing a wheelbarrow when it dawned on him that the ball was a multi-faceted wheel and this was the best way to convey ink.” Next, he had to create a handle for it – the “Cristal,” with its see-through plastic has been around for ages, and it serves the purpose of showing how much ink is left as well as just being rather cool. And later, that hole in the cap? It’s a safety innovation to keep children from choking on it.

Stephane Dieutre, who teaches marketing and innovation at Sorbonne University, Paris, remarked, “It was a triumph for the concept of keeping it simple. Bich was in many ways the inventor of ‘low-cost,’ offering cheap and effective solutions to consumers rather than bowing to a market dictated by sophistication.” While one prefers sophistication, one cannot sell 100,000,000 of anything too sophisticated in a world based upon the common man. And the perfection of the BIC is hardly what one expects from France these days – a reminder that one’s own bigotries (no matter how well-founded in experience) must always be questioned.

BIC has also has no small success in its BIC disposable lighters, which relied on many of the same principles: about as cheap as matches, more reliable, and invented when enough people smoked to make it worthwhile. Remember “Flick of the Bic, Sir?” However, even a company like BIC can have a failure now and then. Disposable underwear may have seemed a good idea at the time, but it didn’t pan out. And BIC perfume didn’t carry quite the sophisticated image consumers sought. Still, 100,000,000 pens allow for a load of failures while still retaining some profit.

© Copyright 2005 by The Kensington Review, J. Myhre, Editor. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written consent.
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