Juice: A good idea goes bad

Posted: Friday, February 09, 2001

Fruity colors saved Apple Computers. They also revved up a 90s version of the Volkswagen Bug. But here's hoping those same fruity colors flop for the Leatherman Tool Group.

Peacocking up computers and cars made sense. Both the computer and auto industry, and the consumers that dote on them, make a habit of excess.

Those industries thrive on advertising departments continually making fresh items seem unwanted and obsolete.

Drive a new car off the lot and you've lost thousands of dollars. Buy a computer with a Pentium chip, and three months later a neo-Gumby creature is on TV teasing that times have passed you by. About the only item that devalues quicker is "fresh air" waiting to be exhaled.

But there are some product makers that have stood firm against excess. The Leatherman Tool Group, makers of multipurpose tools, has been one of those companies.

In 1975, founder Tim Leatherman ditched the standard scouter's knife and spent eight years engineering the original Leatherman tool.

Eight years is an unheard amount of time for product development in the world of cars and computers. As a point of reference, the new millenni

um Apple G4 has more computing power than the 1960s Apollo space program did. And it comes in different colors, too.

Leatherman took his time on his creation because he was "trying to build a pocket tool that met not only my needs, but the needs of others as well."

That utilitarian attitude has played well in the Last Frontier, making the Leatherman as ubiquitous to an Alaskan's belt as the buckle.

Many say there's no problem a Leatherman can't solve, or at least Band-Aid until more appropriate action can be taken. I've often heard people chide that the tool is unnecessary for daily living, but I've just as often heard people ask me if they could borrow my Leatherman.

They make everything easier, whether it's using the knife in place of monkeying around trying to tear open a bag of Fritos, or fixing a pack before skiing 11 miles back to the car in wind chills of minus 50 degrees.

But that utilitarian attitude doesn't play in corporate America, where the idea is to be as coveted as a pair of Abercrombie & Fitch pants, not as useful as a pair of them.

So Leatherman is following cars and computers into the world of candy colors with Juice, a new line of tools expected to be out in the fall. The idea behind Juice is a Leatherman that taps not only a can of beans, but new markets as well.

The Juice line of tools has all the features Leatherman users have come to love, such as pliers, knives and screwdrivers. But it also has a Lucky Charms array of colors -- red, orange, yellow, blue and purple. Each color has its own unique set of features.

It used to be multitool talk centered on the usefulness of the tool. Some swear by Gerber tools because they have pop-out pliers. Plus, the handles on the pliers pinch all the way together, which can be useful for stripping wires.

Aaah, the Leatherman user would counter. But what happens when palm flesh gets caught between the two grips of the pliers, leaving a blood blister? Plus, who really needs pliers that pop out? And if it's stripping wires you want, the Leatherman Wave has a wire stripper on its can/bottle opener.

But with Juice, such productive talk goes out the window. In its place? "Dude, I think you should get this one. It compliments the color of your snowboard."

Leatherman's change from useful to trendy can be summed up by slogans. Leatherman's is "One tool. A couple thousand uses." Juice's is "Get Juiced."

Alaskans have to be wondering what could possibly be next. Carhartts with trendy cargo pockets? Designer duct tape? Tarps by Martha Stewart? "New and improved" cast-iron skillets?

Leatherman is just another American icon (The New York Times printing pictures in color, the Denver Broncos naming their stadium Invesco Field at Mile High) that let money corrupt its original ideals.

The problem of creating a new market is the one problem I've ever wished a Leatherman couldn't solve.

This column is the opinion of Peninsula Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. He can be reached at clarion@alaska.net.

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