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JAPAN

Japan's beauty innovator: unveiling the secrets behind the rise, reinvention, and global triumph of Dolly Wink Cosmetics

Interview - February 1, 2024

A manufacturer of cosmetic products and tools, Koji Honpo – creator of the Dolly Wink brand – has made its mark at home and abroad thanks to its dedication to R&D and quality craftsmanship.

YOSHINORI KOBAYASHI, PRESIDENT OF KOJI HONPO CO., LTD.
YOSHINORI KOBAYASHI | PRESIDENT OF KOJI HONPO CO., LTD.

In the past few decades, Japan has seen the rise of regional manufacturers that have managed to replicate the Japanese model of success. By taking advantage of a cheaper labor force, they have created products at a much lower price. This is especially true in the cosmetics industry, as the biggest rival of Japanese beauty is the Korean Beauty Industry, also known as K-Beauty, which seems to have gained further momentum from the popularity of Korean culture in Western markets. Despite this, Japanese firms are still war leaders in the cosmetic sector, with notable examples such as Shiseido, Kao Chemicals, and Kosei. How have the Japanese cosmetic companies been able to maintain their leadership in the stiff regional competition? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese cosmetic industry today?

The strength of Japanese cosmetics is the driving force for its continuing popularity. Beyond the cosmetic industry, the Japanese commitment to monozukuri reflects a dedicated pursuit of improvements to ensure a specific level of efficacy. Companies leverage this mindset to deliver products precisely tailored to customer needs, enhancing satisfaction and boosting sales. Each Japanese manufacturing entity has designated "maisters" or professionals in every field who contribute cutting-edge solutions and proposals. This collaborative approach fosters innovation, enabling companies to introduce new and improved products to the market. While initially, other Asian countries merely imitated Japanese cosmetics, this superficial emulation proved insufficient for producing high-quality products. In recent times, countries like Korea, Thailand, and China have actively embraced the Japanese monozukuri mindset in their production processes, thereby enhancing their global presence. Notably, Korea, by incorporating the essence of Japanese monozukuri, has experienced an elevation in the quality of its products.

The synergies of robust sales capabilities and K-pop's global influence contribute to K-beauty's commendable global expansion and popularity. Despite possessing a substantial domestic market, one of the weaknesses of Japanese cosmetics companies is that they aren't seeking opportunities in global markets. Societal changes dictate that Japanese companies must now look beyond domestic borders for expansion. Japanese companies excel in responding to the specific and high demands of the domestic customer market. However, an overemphasis on the domestic market has hindered timely expansion into overseas markets, representing a weakness that Japan must overcome to remain competitive globally. We plan to concentrate on international business, particularly cosmetic tools, a category traditionally perceived as affordable with limited functionality.

Our objective is to redefine this perception. Eyeshadow colors must be compatible with diverse skin tones in each locality, but cosmetic tools possess a universal appeal, allowing us to target a wide range of markets. Our company, founded in 1927 in Asakusa by my grandfather, Koji Kobayashi, has a rich history. Before the war, Asakusa was a social and cultural hub, facilitating the infusion of new Western beauty concepts into the area and empowering us to deliver cutting-edge products. In light of the use of women using their hair to craft fake lashes during the time inspired my grandfather, who transformed the concept into a groundbreaking product – our first false eyelashes – a testament to our love for quality. Our dedication to craftsmanship persists, with each false eyelash meticulously manufactured, mirroring the natural progression of human eyelashes—thicker at the base and tapering toward the tips. We place particular emphasis on maintaining thinner tips to seamlessly blend with the user's natural eyelashes, ensuring longevity and the ability to be reused multiple times. The inception of our Tsuke-Matsuge false eyelashes marked a significant milestone, as in 1972, we became pioneers in incorporating synthetic materials in their production. This shift allowed us to achieve a more standardized quality on a larger scale, overcoming the production limitations associated with human hair.

In 1999, a significant breakthrough unfolded as we pioneered a new type of eyelash designed for placement at the corner of the eyes. Seeking to optimize production costs, a streamlined and cost-effective design was introduced in 2005. Although the process remains handmade, it represents a simplified version with fewer steps, allowing us to offer more budget-friendly options. In 2009, our innovation took a bold step by introducing Dolly Wink – a unique wider-length lashes combined with various knitting methods to create Gal's bigger eyes. Leveraging our accumulated technologies, we crafted such one-of-a-kind eyelashes. We also produced the world's first 3D eyelashes. Unlike the conventional singular row, human eyelashes grow randomly in three different layers. Our 3D eyelashes authentically simulate this natural growth pattern, featuring various curls for a lifelike effect.

Our major product lineup includes double eyelid products based on the glue technology we developed for our false eyelashes. Eye Talk, our earliest double eyelid product launched in the 1980s, has undergone continuous updates and renewals over 43 years, remaining a staple in the market with both tape and liquid variations. We also offer eyelash curlers as a cosmetic tool. While these are commonly available at an affordable price, we distinguish ourselves through meticulous production methods, choice of materials, and effectiveness. Our JPY 1,800 eyelash curler has garnered acclaim for its exceptional quality.

 

Japanese companies are famous for their ability to develop new products which serve the ever-evolving needs of society and add up to 3% of annual GDP, and Japan's R&D spending is one of the highest in the world, with the USA allocating about 2% and China 1.5%. Are there any particular products that you are working on that you would like to share with our readers?

Given our steadfast commitment to research and development, we have established a dedicated facility and department to drive innovation. Our in-house development has been instrumental in developing our double eyelid products. Continual refinement is at the core of our approach as we strive to enhance our products' strength, durability, and natural appearance. Since we put a strong emphasis on research and development, we have set up a facility and a department for that purpose. Our double eyelid products have been developed in-house. We are perpetually improving our products for them to be stronger, more long-lasting, and more natural. Recognizing the demand for our products in the Asian market, we remain resolute in focusing on this region. Our strategy involves developing appropriate and essential products for the local market, which usually takes over two or three years.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic had a huge impact on in-store sales. From 2019 to 2021, all the makeup counters in Ginza were empty, including Mitsukoshi and all these different places. Although things have returned to normal, what happened at that time was a huge push for e-commerce. Businesses connected with their customers via e-commerce channels like Rakuten, Amazon, and other websites. Could you tell us how your business first reacted to those changes at the time? Since then, what changes have you made in terms of your sales strategy to ensure that if a similar event occurs, you have channels to connect with your customers?

The onset of COVID-19 brought about substantial challenges for many sectors, but we have been fortunate that it wasn't the case for our company. Given that our products focus on areas not covered by face masks, we did not experience a significant downturn. However, the closure of physical shops posed a hurdle, leading to a significant decline in sales. We used to focus on direct and retail sales, but the pandemic prompted a strategic shift toward embracing e-commerce, a domain we had not explored extensively before. The closure of physical stores spurred our entry into direct sales, with a partnership formed with Rakuten. E-commerce channels emerged as a crucial lifeline for our sales, providing immediate visibility and impact whenever we launched campaigns. Reflecting on this, we acknowledge a missed opportunity in not embracing e-commerce earlier. We have a wholesaler in the middle of our e-commerce business who also started a direct e-commerce channel with different pricing from ours and other companies. It’s important for us to have a standardized price for effective marketing. One of our company's strengths lies in our strong connections with retail stores across diverse fields. Our character business, in particular, has facilitated the expansion of our double-eyelid products to a wide array of customers. Leveraging this extensive network has fostered business growth and resilience during challenging times.



Could you tell us an example of the different types of customers that you’re able to attract?

A significant factor contributing to our resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic was the operational continuity of drug stores. These establishments, deemed essential, remained open and continued to serve customers' essential needs, thus preventing a substantial drop in our sales. Traditional venues such as department stores, eyelash salons, and nail salons experienced reduced foot traffic due to safety concerns. Consequently, a shift toward 'self-beauty' emerged, with customers increasingly opting to use cosmetic products themselves. This change in demand dynamics played in our favor, increasing the demand for our products.

 

What strategies do you employ for the growth of your Dolly Wink brand? How is it superior to similar products offered by competitors?

The launch of Dolly Wink in 2009 marked a pivotal moment for us, coinciding with the peak popularity of Gal makeup. Collaborating with the trend's leader, Tsubasa Masuwaka, we crafted and introduced this product to cater to the unique needs of Gal fashion, where individuals often combine multiple false eyelashes to create customized looks.

The initial success of our product lineup in 2009 led to several items becoming highly sought after, with some experiencing sell-outs. We couldn't catch up with our production because of the handmade nature of our production process. There was a limited number of craftsmen capable of making such complex shapes. Until 2014, this demand was growing exponentially. However, as beauty trends evolved, a shift towards more natural makeup became mainstream, and the demand for elaborate false eyelashes diminished. In response to this change, we undertook a rebranding effort in 2019, altering our packaging and adapting to the shifting preferences of consumers. The era of everyone aspiring to be a gal gave way to a more individualized approach to beauty, where individuals sought to express their unique styles. One of the challenges we embraced was recognizing that, although false eyelashes may not be prominently visible, they play a crucial role in shaping each person's image and beauty style. Collaborating with a marketing agency, we endeavored to renew the Dolly Wink brand, blending our accumulated expertise and history with innovative marketing strategies to breathe new life into the product. Simultaneously, we enhanced our product portfolio with a new lineup. The introduction of Easy Lash, priced at JPY 500, was a strategic move to make our products accessible for trial. Subsequently, Salon Eyelash followed, emphasizing improved quality and simplicity for a more natural appearance. Our strategic approach involves introducing customers to our Easy Lash products before encouraging them to explore our premium, high-quality offerings, thus appealing to a broad spectrum of consumers. As a result of this strategy, we succeeded in the revitalization of the entire false eyelash market which had been in a temporary decline.

 

Regarding the products or brands you want to increase their reputation overseas, is there any particular sub-brand you would like to grow internationally?

The success of Dolly Wink was not confined to Japan; it resonated strongly in other Asian countries as well. Tsubasa Masuwaka's popularity extended beyond national borders, contributing to the export of gal culture overseas. The term 'kawaii,' emblematic of Japanese cuteness and style, gained widespread recognition, further bolstering the global appeal of our products. Our products have been very well-received by Asian teens.

 

In an interview with the President of Primix Corporation, Mr. Kawasaki, he explained that due to the nature of Asian skin, major Japanese cosmetics firms have over 3,000 types of moisturizers, as it has unique characteristics. For example, it ages slower due to a thick dermis, however, because of a thinner stratum corneum, it also scars more easily and is sensitive, which contrasts with European and American skin. How do you ensure that your products are able to suit varying types of skin?

Focusing primarily on the Asian market due to the similarity in skin characteristics, our commitment to meeting diverse market needs is reflected in ongoing research and development efforts. An encouraging observation came to light when we showcased our products at the Japan Expo in France. Remarkably, individuals from different cultural backgrounds and skin types experienced no noticeable adverse reactions when using our false eyelashes, highlighting the universal appeal of our products. Participating in the Japan Expo in France a decade ago provided invaluable insights. We met people from various races with different skin types and hair colors who were united by their interest in anime or Japanese culture. When we first asked them to try on our false eyelashes, we were concerned that the black eyelashes might not suit their eye color or their hair color, but that wasn't the case. In fact, they were well-liked and had a universal allure. Recognizing the global marketing potential, we aim to capitalize on the widespread acceptance of false eyelashes. As part of our global strategy, we have adapted our products to comply with local regulations on cosmetic substances in different countries, particularly in Taiwan and other Asian markets. Looking ahead, our commitment to further research and development underscores our determination to enhance our global market share. 

 

Throughout our time in Japan, we've heard that large and small firms alike recognize the importance of collaboration as a means of leveraging the expertise of others to be competitive in the global market. What role does collaboration play in your business, and are you actively pursuing new opportunities to collaborate with overseas companies or local retail stores?

We are consistently seeking sales partners who are interested in promoting and selling our products. Although our efforts to expand into the US and Europe have not yielded the desired results thus far, we are determined to persist and overcome this challenge. Our primary focus remains on Asian customers, given the compatibility of our products with Asian skin.

 

If we were to come back for your 100th anniversary in 2027 and interview you all over again, do you have a personal goal or ambition that you'd like to achieve for the company by that date?

My goal is to lead the company in creating and delivering special value to everyone connected to us, including our employees, partner companies, and customers. We aspire to provide a unique and unparalleled value through our diverse businesses, encompassing cosmetic tools, cosmetics, and character products. Our approach is not confined to a specific industry but revolves around the creation and delivery of special value.

Traditionally targeted at teens for fancier makeup and double eyelids, Eye Talk has undergone a rebranding initiative to cater more to the senior generation, aligning with the demographic shift toward an aging society. Currently under development, we plan to launch the new Eye Tape, namely "Eye Talk ageless eye lifting tape," in February, specifically designed for the senior generation.

We are trying to cater to a wider range of customers by diversifying our product lineup.

In addition to our branded products, we serve as an OEM manufacturer, producing nail polish removers and false eyelashes for undisclosed brands. We are open to collaborating with any Asian cosmetics brand interested in OEM manufacturing, extending our expertise and quality products to enhance their offerings.

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