boston.com Business your connection to The Boston Globe
Kenichi Yonezawa of Tokyo used a Gillette razor, without shaving cream. Gillette has long trailed Schick in Japan.
Kenichi Yonezawa of Tokyo used a Gillette razor, without shaving cream. Gillette has long trailed Schick in Japan. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

Looking to clean up in Japan

Gillette makes inroads with a new ad strategy

TOKYO -- Takashi Tobita is on the front line of Gillette's campaign to conquer the one major world market it has failed to dominate.

Not long ago, the 31-year-old master stylist offered free shaves with the company's new Fusion razor to hundreds of suited salarymen in a temporary shop Gillette set up in the bustling heart of the financial district. Now, Fusion shares space with a straight-edge razor Tobita once exclusively used in his own barbershop, Hair Fashion Shiki.

Gillette is stepping up its effort to win the hearts and chins of shavers in this island nation that has been one of the toughest markets in the world to crack. The stakes are high: Japan is the world's second largest economy after the United States. The wet shaving market in Japan currently is valued at $310 million, but some analysts say it has the potential to grow significantly.

The Boston razor giant, number one in Western Europe, Russia, China, and the United States , has been a distant second in Japan to Schick, its Bristol, Conn., rival. But since launching Fusion last year, Gillette's share in Japan has jumped to 33 percent from 21 percent, nicking away at Schick's grip on the razor market, according to market research firm ACNielsen Japan. It was Gillette's largest increase ever in Japan, and it followed nearly a decade of stagnant or single-digit growth in the country.

Gillette made its move after dissecting years of its shortcomings, an approach encouraged by the company's new owner, Procter & Gamble Co. Part of the problem, executives said , is that Japan, with its cramped stores, frequently changing tastes, and few large chain outlets, is a difficult country to do business. Popular merchants such as outdoor retailer REI and home goods giant IKEA failed and retreated after their first attempt to open stores in Japan.

"Japan is one of the wealthiest nations and a lot of multinational consumer products companies have not fared well here," said Jason Gere , an analyst with A.G. Edwards & Sons . "Everyone is jumping on the China boat and on the Latin America market. But Japan is one of the last standing developed markets that really hasn't hit its peak, and there's an opportunity there."

Companies that have done well, such as Apple Inc., have created advertising campaigns tailored for this market. In recent years, Japanese consumers have preferred advertising featuring domestic celebrities and athletes, rather than foreign models, according to Laura Miller , an anthropology professor at Loyola University Chicago and author of the book, "Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics ." But Gillette was slow to pick up this switch.

"Gillette for a long time was selling hyper masculine Western men, and that doesn't work in Japan," Miller said. "Twenty years ago, the Japanese liked seeing foreigners. Now when they see foreigners in advertising, it's almost like a parody. They are interested in seeing people that look like themselves, their own cultural figures and emulating those."

Japan also has been a tough market because a big segment of the population favors electric razors and other dry shavers. Japanese men often shower in the evening and shave the next morning. They shave less frequently than men in other parts of the world, according to Gillette's company research.

And Gillette was late to Japan, setting up its operations years after Schick had established itself and created strong relationships with wholesalers. Schick, owned by Energizer Holdings, Inc. of St. Louis, cemented its loyalty with a hugely popular ad campaign in the 1990s that featured local professional wrestlers. It has more than half of the razor market in Japan, making it the biggest and most important international arena for Schick.

To oversee its new strategy to dethrone Schick, Gillette has for the first time put its Japanese operations in the hands of a native Japanese executive, Shinji Okuyama . The plan relies heavily on advertising and merchandise customized for Japanese customers, and using the clout from P&G to negotiate better shelf space and long-term displays at stores throughout the country.

This is the only place in the world where the new razor is marketed as "Fusion 5+1" (the number of blades) because local research showed that the Japanese notion of Fusion by itself did not resonate. Gillette took a direct stab at Schick by labeling its bright orange packages with "Superior versus four blade products." Schick, which declined repeated interview requests, launched its four-bladed Quattro Titanium razor weeks before Gillette unveiled Fusion last summer.

"We've been struggling in this market. Whatever effort we have made, they have stopped us," Masahiko Nakasuji , Gillette's marketing director in Japan, said of Schick. "But now we're on track to beat them in a few years."

For the launch of Fusion, Gillette partnered with a Japanese barbers association to run the shaving bar in the financial district , and a handful of barbers now sell Fusion blades and razors in their shops alongside hair gels and creams.

Recently, Tobita, the owner of Hair Fashion Shiki, hunched over Akirai Tsuruoka , gliding a silver and orange Fusion razor across the stubble on his customer's face. It was the first time the 59-year-old Tsuruoka had tried the Gillette razor. Like many other Japanese men, Tsuruoka uses a Schick blade at home, but after this shave was considering switching brands.

"It's much smoother," Tsuruoka said.

At retail stores, Gillette introduced shaving sommeliers who helped explain the new razor and get it in the hands of consumers. One shop let Gillette rope off a section of the store -- next to sake displays, luggage, and women's clothing -- to showcase its products alongside an orange Harley-Davidson motorcycle (it matched the orange razor) that shavers could win in a sweepstakes. The company followed that effort by partnering for the first time with a recruiting magazine to mail free razors to 160,000 male college graduates.

Fusion is Gillette's first major product launch under consumer product conglomerate P&G, which bought the company for $54 billion in 2005. In the past, the Boston shaving giant had been forced to scale back or entirely eliminate older products when it unveiled a new razor because of the tight retail environment. But with P&G's backing, Gillette negotiated long-term commitments from retailers to display products and allow shelf space in multiple locations throughout stores.

Although Gillette managed to steal some market share with the launch of its Sensor and Mach3 shaving systems, those successes were short-lived after Schick aggressively responded with new products and advertising campaigns. Even this winter, Gillette lost some ground when Schick made a big push in advertising and displays, knocking Fusion razors off the shelves.

But this time around, Matt Wohl, Gillette's general manager for new male products and shave care, insists the company will defend its growth and continue to pick up momentum because it better understands the customers and has a long-term plan tailored to the market.

When Gillette launches its Phantom razor in Japan this summer (a black and silver version of the Fusion), it will be the first time the company's ads feature local athletes and celebrities, such as famous DJ Chris Peppler and breast stroke gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima.

And the razor won't be called Phantom, as it is in the rest of the world, because it didn't translate well here. For Japan, its name is Air.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: An untapped market
SEARCH THE ARCHIVES