Hand Dryers and Brand Ascent

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Something weird is going on with hand dryers.


Over the last few years, I've found myself talking about hand dryers more and more – mostly in bars. This never happened before, and it's largely based on the success of two new brands: Excel's Xlerator (featured above) and the Dyson Air Blade (below). 

Time was, hand dryers were terrible, and the only argument for using them (over paper towels) was an environmental one. Most people didn't notice differences between the various dryers they encountered almost daily, nor did they notice their deficiencies in an explicit way.

Now, as the internet and anecdotal evidence attest, people do take notice. They recognize particular ones (Dyson and Xlerator) – or, just as often, their absence. 


This is an interesting case of how products and innovations get "branded." That's a general process scholars of technology have written about, but in conversations with a few of them I haven't turned up anything quite like what's going on with hand dryers: 

An array of "anonymous" alternatives, disrupted by an innovation (higher air-pressure) by a few companies, quickly raising brand-consciousness and shifting the landscape of user experience. 

Diversity ... displaced?

First, customers and users mean different things. Restaurant owners buy dryers – they're Dyson's customers – while the restaurant's customers use them. This raises a question about buyer motivation: why would you shell out $400 (Xlerator) or $1400 (Air Blade)? 

One reason might be indirect savings. All hand dryers save on paper, trash, and cleaning, which add up. But why spend $1400 rather than $100? Well, the expensive ones save on electricity, which adds up, too. But that doesn't seem to get us there. Are restaurant customers, encountering an Air Blade, likely to spend more money or return more often? It's unlikely hand dryers would be an explicit reason, but attractive amenities probably positively impact money-in (and not just reduce money-out).

Are fancy hand dryers the new fancy cotton towels?
Second, I'm still thinking through how this late-branding phenomenon relates to a more familiar one, referred to as "proprietary eponyms" or "generic trademarks." This is what we call Kleenex and Band-Aid – trademarked products – becoming generic terms.

That's not what's going on here – or at least not yet. Instead, it's kind of the opposite process; new, recognizable names mean users are attuned to differences in a way they weren't. This could go lots of ways: further product differentiation (with more new, recognizable brands), or copy-catting. The latter happening – all hand dryers start to act more like Xlerators, say – is a condition of possibility for the rise of "Xlerator" as a generic trademark.

For my money, things probably won't go that way. But with dryers capturing attention and creating loyalties, we might see a more rapid decline in the use of paper towels, and even a luxury line of dryers fit for rooms like the one above. And if that happens – and even if it doesn't – I think we might see a new home invasion, with (rich) people installing these at home. You might not agree, but it's at least thinkable – in a way it wasn't, not too long ago. 

If that happens, it will be due in no small part to attractive design, which is something no user paid attention to, in this industry, a decade ago. The link between (technological) innovation and (aesthetic) design is a thorny one for scholars of technology – for which hand dryers might be taken up as an interesting case. 

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I've been thinking of buying a hand dryer for the bathroom at my work. I'm thinking of getting one of the newer kind of hand dryers that you put your hands into. I can't think of the name of it, but I think it would be good to have one at least. http://www.pacifichygienesystems.com/hand-dryers

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