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Behind the Glamour: ISEHAN's 200-Year Legacy and the Global Makeup Revolution

Interview - May 7, 2024

ISEHAN is a pioneering cosmetics company navigating the ever-evolving landscape of global beauty trends, while staying true to its centuries-old commitment to quality and functionality.

ISEHAN began in 1825 as a manufacturer and seller of traditional Japanese rouge "BENI". Even now, 200 years later, it is the only company in the world where craftsmen still handcraft using the same methods as the Edo period. On the other hand, as a general cosmetics company in Japan, they are developing the KISSME brand globally. Their 200-year history has been supported by a flexible response to market trends, an innovative mindset that is not afraid to take on new challenges, and the spirit of Japanese craftsmanship. In recent years, the share of foreign cosmetics, such as Korean brands, is increasing in the Japanese market. We spoke with President Haruko Sawada about their strategies in the domestic and global markets.

HARUKO SAWADA, PRESIDENT OF ISEHAN CO., LTD.
HARUKO SAWADA | PRESIDENT OF ISEHAN CO., LTD.


“Komachibeni”, Japanese traditional rouge


Japanese companies have long held a position within the cosmetics industry and thus have accumulated expertise in creating cosmetic products. However, we have seen in recent decades the dominance of Korean beauty, largely due to the spread of Korean culture around the world and very efficient marketing from Korean beauty companies. Yet, hidden in this narrative are intriguing dynamics since Japan is actually a leader in terms of niche applications and high-end ingredients. We are now seeing “Less is more” products from Japanese firms where there is an increased emphasis on higher-value ingredients. Could you elaborate on what you believe to be the key drivers that have allowed Japanese firms to maintain their position as global leaders in cosmetics?

First and foremost, I want to clarify that we are not a skincare company but rather a more general cosmetics company, and I think that what you mentioned about “Less is more” relates more to skincare in particular. We believe that our company is more in direct competition with these K-beauty rivals, especially regarding makeup. A key characteristic of K-beauty is that, with the support of the government, Korean culture has been actively exported with things such as cosmetics, dramas, movies, and pop music.

I would say that the Koreans conduct their business in a very inspiring manner. There are constantly new colors, ingredients, and applications being developed as well as new media, packaging, and marketing methods. I’ve heard from many in the industry that Korean firms tend to focus on the short term, and since consumers get bored easily, they constantly have to create new aspects to their products. This constant change and innovation is what is fueling the popularity of K-beauty trends around the world.

It is important for Japanese companies like ourselves to take a diverse course, understanding and determining what uniqueness can help us appeal to consumers. In comparison, the biggest difference between Japanese brands and Korean brands is that the Japanese ones do not tend to focus only on the short term; rather, there is a need to gather data and establish trends that are for the long term. The idea is to build long-term relationships with customers that will slowly swell and begin to penetrate the market further. This is all supported by the commitment to high-quality manufacturing.



ISEHAN R&D’s commitment to high-quality manufacturing


Whether in Japan or abroad, customers can expect Japanese cosmetics characterized by three key features. Beauty is defined by quality and functionality. We are looking to establish these traits to a level that cannot be rivaled by any other. On top of these two elements, safety is another fundamental criterion. Within our product portfolio, we have our KISSME Mommy skincare brand which can be used with very small infants. I feel not only the quality but the safety we provide distinguishes us from our rivals.



KISSME Mommy uses food-derived ingredients


You mentioned building relationships with customers, and in the past, people liked visiting physical retail stores, but in recent years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing retail stores struggling to bring back customers, and in a sense, this is forcing companies to change the way they approach sales. Japanese e-commerce has grown 13% over the last year, and this is mirroring global trends that are seeing an average of 44% of people worldwide purchasing products online. Is Isehan shifting its focus to more e-commerce, and if yes, how are you adapting your sales strategies to better match an e-commerce-based model?

If you live in Japan, you will immediately notice that retail culture is very strong here. Especially in urban areas, there are still many drugstores, supermarkets, and variety stores. In the countryside, it might not apply, but in major cities, there are huge shopping malls with many stores inside that carry a whole host of different products and cosmetics.

Unlike the US and China where the land size is massive, Japan is very compact and consumers tend to prefer actually going to retail stores to see the products in person. Japanese people, in general, enjoy the experience of shopping. The rate of e-commerce has not yet reached the levels of the US with websites such as Amazon. Japanese people know how convenient e-commerce can be, so I do believe that over time that ratio is going to go up. A few years ago we began strengthening our e-commerce division to promote direct marketing through our communication channels with our customers. Our group has been working diligently to increase production facilities as well as our logistics and warehousing. There has also been an upgrade to our management system that allows us to better utilize customer information.

Data collection for direct marketing has led to the creation of new products that cater to the needs and concerns of customers. Specifically, these products are for e-commerce channels.


EC Exclusive selling “MN”


A trend that Japan is at the forefront of globally is the aging population. Additionally, due to low birth rates, the population of Japan is also shrinking, with experts predicting that by 2050 the population of Japan will drop below 100 million, which is posing several issues including a labor crisis as well as a shrinking domestic market. Within these challenges, however, there is an emerging industry for elderly-centric products including cosmetics such as anti-aging creams and skincare. As a makeup company, what challenges and opportunities have you seen as a result of this aging population trend and how are you adapting to it?

This is a grave issue experienced across all industries so our strategy is to expand overseas. We see regions like the US and ASEAN as potential, then we planned on expanding beyond. With our current plans, we are expanding to 15 countries and areas, as of May 2024.

We were originally catering our products in KISSME FERME to more of the elderly generation with our game plan to target those above the age of 40 years old. In fact, our products were regarded as one of the senior generation’s preferred makeup brands. Pre-COVID, we attended many events and festivals, and although the products are designed for self-application, we had multiple events where professionals demonstrated to customers how to best apply the makeup. Additionally, we provided customers with an opportunity to take photos using our makeup, all with the idea of making our products pop and ingratiate our brand with our consumers.



KISSME FERME’s event


During the COVID period, we needed to refrain from these activities and really struggled with our marketing but through interviewing our customers we realized there was an increased want from consumers to enjoy makeup regardless of their age. Therefore, we have shifted KISSME FERME from a brand for middle and senior generations to one that offers highly functional items for people who have the mindset to enjoy makeup regardless of age.

One of my favorite products is a stick-shaped eye shadow that is designed to expedite the time needed to apply, making it very convenient and easy to use. With this particular product, our target was mothers and career-oriented women; however, we quickly realized that teens were purchasing this product. I think this product became as popular as it did because it is affordable and easy to use for customers. Even students with limited time can enjoy makeup easily because they can use it like a pen.



“KISSME FERME Cushion Tip Eye Color”, chip-integrated eyeshadow


Isehan has almost 200 years of history with many different products targeting many different consumers. Out of all of the varied products you offer, which do you believe has the most growth potential in terms of global sales?

Overseas, our KISSME brand has been widely recognized for its quality, particularly our mascara offerings in Asia and Southeast Asia where the climate is hot. People appreciate the fact that our offerings are sweat and sebum resistant. This type of functionality has been well received by international clients. To that end, we have put a particular emphasis on our KISSME brand. Additionally, we have been utilizing original characters like animation in our packaging and it leaves a strong impression on Asian customers.



“Himeko”, the original character of Heroinemake


As you mentioned, we have 200 years of tradition here at Isehan, and throughout those years, the focus has always been on quality and functionality. We present our craftsmanship spirit that has been passed down through the generations, and we believe in any claims we make about our products’ comparative quality. If we say that our mascara curls better than the competition, we are confident in that claim. This is why we are pushing our KISSME Heroinemake line to international markets.

 

Global trends in makeup are now tending to look for more natural-looking colors, hues, and lines. With the knowledge that light colors are able to create natural, beautiful eyelashes, how are you adapting your product lineup to better cater to the global, natural look trend?

This natural look trend you mentioned is being demonstrated in the functionality that we provide with our mascaras. Our mascaras are long-lasting and create a delicate lash and I think this lends itself well to a more natural look that people are looking for these days. To cater to this naturalistic trend, we do have our KISSME Heroinemake Micro Mascara, which can color the bottom eyelashes easily by using a fine brush. I believe that the ability to color both bottom and top lashes allows users to freely enjoy makeup. In March 2024, we also launched Real Lash Mascara in Japan, offering a  natural finish never seen before in the brand, which makes it look as if your own eyelashes have grown longer.

In fact, the mascara can instantly be removed using hot water and without having to use a specific type of cleanser, which makes our products very convenient for users. There has been a growing trend in Japan to use hot water instead to remove mascara, thus reducing semantics.



KISSME products popular in Japan and overseas


In terms of pioneering trends, our company is actually responsible for creating the culture around coloring with eyebrow mascara “HEAVYROTATION”, and we have the biggest market share in this segment in Japan. Additionally, this is one of our key KISSME products that we export overseas. In fact, all of our export products are under the KISSME brand. Within the product, there are ten colors including some more muted tones and natural shades.

 

We have seen a lot of innovation in recent years within the cosmetics space, but interestingly, this innovation is resulting in products that are very reasonably priced for consumers. This has split consumers, with some torn between trusted but expensive brands versus more reasonably priced brands that are releasing innovative new products. How is your company taking advantage of this wave to fight against major expensive brands such as L'Oréal or Shiseido?

These days, more and more users are using both high and low-price range cosmetics. Discerning users are always looking for products of better quality and functionality that suit them. It is a difficult space to be in, and in order to keep ourselves competitive it is important for us to continue to produce new products that cater to trends. With these new products, it is vital for our brand that those products exhibit the functionality and quality that consumers are accustomed to. Our customers are ever-demanding, and this demand always calls for increasing quality and functionality even with self-applied makeup.

 

If you had to define your company using only one sentence, what would that be?

We are currently planning a lot of things for an important 200th anniversary next year. First and foremost, I think it is important for our employees to enjoy their work. We want to provide an environment where they can be happy and comfortable, therefore performing their best for the company.

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