Japan’s Kao Corporation makes beauty and personal care products, but it’s a brand with a mission. For over 130 years, the company has been enriching lives and working for a better future. With a portfolio of famous products, Kao is quietly shaping the future.
History of Kao Corporation
In 1887, Tomiro Nagase started a shop that would become an empire. Instead of selling goods imported in from the West, he aspired to create affordable, high-quality personal care products in Japan. In 1890, Nagase launched his own brand of soap, and named it Kao Sekken, a wordplay that means “king of flowers.”
Nagase’s commitment to quality led him to seek analysis of his soap from pharmacology professors, and then included a certificate of the analysis in his product packaging. While this may seem commonplace today, it was an unprecedented level of quality and transparency for the times. He also created a nationwide distribution network, another unprecedented move for the times.
Upon his death, Nagase left the company to his family, with the words “good fortune is given only to those who work diligently and behave with integrity.” This philosophy has driven Kao ever since.
In the 1930s, Kao led the way in marketing, by holding workshops and eliciting direct feedback from consumers. From 1934 to 1940, Kao operated a Housework Science Laboratory that worked with consumers to examine lifestyle questions and innovate new product development. During those six years, the laboratory held over 4,500 workshops with a total of 1.5 million participants. In the 1970s, the spirit of listening and collaborating with the customer went digital, with the creation of a database that collected inquiries, complaints, and feedback, and used them to inform product marketing and development. By 2017, Kao was receiving an average of 220,000 consumer interactions a year, from customers around the world, and the data is used in quality improvement activities around the world.
The company has also continued to expand its portfolio with new products and acquisitions, owning important global brands like Bioré, Guhl, John Frieda, Molton Brown, Curel, Goldwell, Oribe, Jurgens, and more.
As you might expect, Kao was also ahead of the curve on sustainability, launching its first refillable products in 1991. Refillable products alone reduced Kao’s plastic consumption by 74% from 1995 to 2017. By creating ultra-concentrated products, they are able to reduce the size of plastic bottles and containers, and improving the rinsing capability of laundry detergent Attack Neo reduces rinse cycles and reduces water consumption.
Mission and Recognition
Kao is a company that lives its culture. Driven by a mission to improve lives, and confronted with a wide range of global challenges, the company is attacking problems on all fronts.
- Reducing waste. Kao has spent decades innovating ways to reduce waste and promote re-use, including inventing a de-inking agent that quickly removes ink from paper to speed recycling, creating a cement thickener that prevents concrete structures from polluting groundwater in underwater construction, developing a low-temperature toner that reduces electricity use by printers and copy machines, and making a dispersion improver that evenly disperses silica to reduce rubber in car tires.
- Improving sustainability. In addition to initiatives that improve recycling and reduce waste, Kao is continually reducing their corporate CO2 emissions, aiming to be carbon neutral by 2040 and carbon negative by 2050. They have also created a sustainable surfactant from industrial palm oil production waste, and have a number of programs to protect greenspaces and preserve water resources in Japan and China.
- Delivering quality products. Naturally Kao remains as committed to quality and customer satisfaction as ever. Kao’s Fine Fiber creates an ultra-thin (less than one micrometer) membrane on the surface of the skin, with a huge range of potential in the beauty industry, but may also have medical and therapeutic benefits.
- Employee satisfaction. Kao doesn’t believe that all this success is at the expense of employees. In fact, the company is driven by a mission to embrace diversity, enhance communication, and maximize the potential of every employee.
In 2020, Kao was awarded the “Environmental Hero of the Year” award by the Environment Possibility Awards, and ranked #4 in the Corporate Knights Industry Group’s Personal Care and Cleaning Products, recognized for innovation, “clean” revenue (revenue from products that benefit the environment), and employee retention.
Innovating for the Future
Naturally, a company with this incredible history isn’t slowing down any time soon. In fact, their goal is to become “an essential company in a sustainable world”. By 2025, Kao corporation plans to create more carbon and positive recycling, fight infectious diseases, invest in sustainability, develop precision healthcare products with high-precision bioanalysis, and maximize employee potential with talent promotion, improved productivity, and fair compensation. We look forward to their continued success!
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