【Japanese Beauty Vol.14】A New Way of Shampoo? Modern Product for Lovely Locks

We are living in an age where first impressions make all the difference, where we have only a brief moment to leave our mark on the people around us. It's hard to overstate how important a hairstyle is to that first impression, so it's no wonder that people pay just as much attention to their hair care as they do to their skin care. Hair care brand, “Essential” has been catering to the multiple needs of modern women including evolving trends and has revamped in 2018. We introduce the “ultimate hair care for modern women.”

Today, we take shampoo and conditioner for granted when it comes to washing our hair. Shiny, sleek, healthy hair can make or break a first impression, so most people know that taking care of our hair with these products is a must.

But not everyone knows the history of hair care, and what you don't know might surprise you. Let's first take a look at hair care from days gone by.

(Seiichi Maruta, Kao Corporation Cultural Information Department, Kao Museum Manager)

"At the Kao Museum, we have more than just Kao products. We also walk guests through the evolution of history and lifestyles," said Seiichi Maruta, director of the Kao Museum. He was kind enough to take us on a tour of the museum.

"The museum not only has exhibits about our later products but we also have information on the lifestyles of each time period during the release of those products. I think the Washing Zone, with information on the culture surrounding bathing, cleaning, and cosmetics, is an interesting one," said Mr. Maruta.

"When you look back at the last 5,000 years of washing history, you can see records of how people cleaned things like the floors and the dishes, as well as how they washed their hair, faces, and bodies. We offer a bathhouse-themed exhibit that takes guests through the history of washing culture," said Mr. Maruta.

"If you look into the history of substances for washing, you can find that their roots often stretch back to prehistoric times. Here, we have displays of the natural sodium carbonate that the ancient Egyptians are said to have used, a plant called Japanese honey locust (Gleditsia japonica), and a comb made from the Japanese boxwood tree. The oldest shampoo [in Japan] is said to be the water left over after washing rice," explained Mr. Maruta.

Of course, when discussing how people have washed themselves throughout history, there's one thing you can't leave out: soap. Soap was first manufactured outside of Japan. In fact, the method for making it and the custom of using it only entered Japan during the Meiji era (1868-1912).

"The first soap mentioned in Japanese records seems to be Tsutsumi Soap, in 1873. However, it was expensive, so it vanished from the market within 5 or 6 years. Still, the cheapest soap from that series of products sold relatively well, so other manufacturers lowered the quality of their ingredients and began to make cheap soap, assuming that the cheaper the soap, the better it would sell. That led to a proliferation of inferior products. The founder of Kao, Tomiro Nagase, created the company hoping to change that. He resolved to offer Kao Soap as a Japanese-made soap manufactured from high-quality ingredients," said Mr. Maruta.

In 1890, just over 15 years after Tsutsumi Soap was introduced, Kao Soap was released as soap "created with a unique method adapted from a European one and customized for Japan." You could buy three bars of soap for 35 sen.

"We didn't sell individual bars of soap, but it would have been about 12 sen per bar. At the time, a single serving of soba noodles was 1 sen, so this was a product that the general population couldn't really afford. Still, Mr. Nagase spent about half of his revenue on advertising in order to market the quality of the product. His strategy was to establish soap as not just an everyday necessity, but as a cosmetic product. It goes without saying that with the launch of this soap, people began developing interests in beauty habits,” explains Mr. Maruta.

Mr. Nagase's son, also named Tomiro, became the second president of the company and worked to innovate the soap-making process. He is said to have created the platform upon which Kao soap is made today.

The original shampoo soap was first introduced in 1932. Kao is said to be the first company in Japan to sell a product under the name "shampoo."

"It was called shampoo, but it looked like a bar of soap. [laughter] You could break it into powder and mix it with water to create lather. Compared to what the people had been using to wash their body and hair, just the fact that this soap was specifically for the hair caught people's attention. It lathered up well and smelled lovely, so the difference in the end result was night and day. From what I understand, it became well-known among the wealthy, then spread from there," said Mr. Maruta.

As manufacturing techniques for palm oil-based detergents advanced, shampoo quickly became an integral part of daily life in Japan. Mr. Maruta told us that Kao Feather Shampoo has had a particularly large impact compared to other Kao products.

"One product that could be called the precursor to our Essential brand, 'Kao Feather Shampoo,' made a huge contribution to hair-washing culture when it launched in 1955. Many people became familiar with Kao through using Feather Shampoo, to the extent that people started to think of us as a shampoo company," said Mr. Maruta with a laugh.

As technology improved from the days of alkaline soaps, the advent of synthetic surfactant powders made neutral hair cleansers possible, which not only increased their effectiveness, but also made manufacturing speed far faster. This was the breakthrough that had been needed to solidify shampoo's place in daily life.

Tiny sachets containing Feather Shampoo were sold at public bathhouses, where they were a runaway hit. "Almost everyone bought some Feather Shampoo when they paid for entry to the bathhouse," said Mr. Maruta.

Apparently, Kao controlled nearly 80% of the shampoo market at the time!

The shampoo technological revolution continues. From alkaline soap to neutral powder shampoo, and finally an easy-to-use liquid shampoo. Kao was the first company in Japan to offer liquid shampoo.

"Kao's Feather Shampoo continued to evolve as we released two versions of shampoo. The Kao Museum has both of them on display, and here we've gotten out the Dry version and the Oily from back then. 'Wash once every five days' was the slogan at the time," explained Mr. Maruta.

After the debut of Feather Shampoo, everyone in Japan started taking shampooing seriously, which brings us up to today. Now, Kao has eight different brands that cater to all sorts of concerns and customer needs.

"Essential was introduced in 1976 as a hair care brand that would offer women beauty according to trending standards," explained Mitsutoshi Kamiya, who was the project leader in charge of the most recent revamp to the Essential line.

"We're professionals in research and marketing for hair, and even we need to keep our eyes peeled for changes in the hair care market. What was normal six months ago might not apply today. Things change that fast," he continued. The product development process requires their team to predict hair care trends as far into the future as possible.

(Mitsutoshi Kamiya, Kao Hair Care Business Department, Senior Marketer)

In 2013, Mr. Kamiya took over the hair care section, and in 2017 he became the leader of the Essential line.

"We believe it is a must as a brand to choose better ingredients and feature the latest technology for producing products with higher quality. If we don't, we won't be able to survive," said Mr. Kamiya with a laugh.

What do companies need to do when creating products to fit the needs of consumers as society changes? "You have to correctly understand what the 'now' is, and have the ability to predict the future," responded Mr. Kamiya.

"The 80s had perms, the 90s had hair color, each generation had a trend that dominated it while also affecting the hair and damaging it. People want to look fashionable and beautiful, but the hair takes all the damage. We want to create products that address those problems and help women look and feel their best."

"Still, consumers aren't satisfied with that alone," said Mr. Kamiya.

"Effectiveness alone isn't enough. We need to integrate the product naturally in daily life. Making the hair look beautiful isn't enough to sell products. Products have to match what people need in their lifestyles," explains Mr. Kamiya.

This is where Kao's marketing really shows its strengths. They collect vast amounts of information using marketing surveys, varying the sample size, frequency, and framework of each questionnaire. Even in the cosmetics industry, you have to admit they go above and beyond.

"We do market surveys over and over until we have a full understanding of the situation. It doesn't stop with one or two group interviews with a few participants.” That's the kind of commitment to detail you can expect. And what have they learned from those surveys?

"Right now, there are an overwhelming number of women that desire an efficient hair care more than time-consuming hair care. When women are working or raising children, it's difficult to find time for themselves. So they really value their time, which means they're looking for efficient ways to care for their hair," said Mr. Kamiya.

"When we did some supplemental research, it became clear that it wasn’t the fact that the customers didn’t want to spend time caring for their hair. They simply don't have time. So that led us to change the perspective of our questions. When we did another survey asking women which parts of their hair care they found annoying or difficult, the number one answer was drying their hair. Hair drying comes with the triple handicap of being hot, heavy, and loud. [laughter] Even though we've seen a lot of extremely effective hair dryers come out recently, these problems still haven't gone away for women," said Mr. Kamiya.

Their team struck upon the idea of a product to speed up the hair drying process.

"If women end up feeling that looking their best is annoying because it takes time and effort, it's a really a shame. So if we can, we thought a hair care brand, and technology of course, could offer women a new way to live their lives."

("Essential Smart Blow Dry" is a new fast-dry shampoo released this summer)

"The word 'optimization' is an important word in our lives today, and products optimized to be as efficient as possible are everywhere. It starts with home appliances like robotic vacuum cleansers and so on, and we can even see it in cosmetics now.

There are products that can be used as eye shadow, lip color, and blush, or all-in-one gels that cover everything toner, lotion, serum, and cream do. Those all fall into that category. Thanks to advances in technology, we take it for granted that we can look great in less time and with less effort. The concept that skipping steps isn't necessarily a bad thing will be spreading faster.

Right now, what we have to do is find a way to create new value for consumers. We have to pick out the inconveniences in people's daily lives and make them into part of people's lifestyles and habits," said Mr. Kamiya.

(Shino Nakajima, Kao Hair Care Department)

"I was really happy to be involved in this brand revamp," said Shino Nakajima, a four-year employee of Kao with a sparkle in her eye. This was a revamp of the Essential brand, which has been around since long before she was born. She must have felt some pressure, right?

"I felt like I had finally made it. Of course people in the company bumped heads sometimes, with all sorts of opinions going back and forth like, 'Oh, that won't work, this won't work.' But no matter what, we wanted to make this project work," she said, reflecting on the development process.

Since we’re introducing a new product, it’s given the product is great. Improving the ingredients and formula to make a new product seems like common sense, but something didn’t feel right.

"When we used to do hair care surveys, we only asked questions about people's hair concerns. Of course a lot of people had issues with dry hair, texture, volume and al that which was complex enough to give us some insight, but it seemed like we were still missing something... So we decided to go in from a different perspective. And that was how people took care of their hair," said Ms. Nakajima.

A 2017 Kao survey revealed that over 80% of all participants felt their hair care was a burden.

"Nearly 60% of the respondents answered their blow dry took too much time. Others said they couldn't style their hair the way they want (50.6%), or that their hair would spread out even after blow drying (51.6%). Everyone was struggling with their hair care," continued Ms. Nakajima.

The company noticed a certain change taking place among women in their 20s.

"Did you know that about 70% of young women in their 20s own a curling iron or flat iron? They say that using a hair iron is easier than blow drying in the morning." Even Ms. Nakajima is in the flat iron camp when it comes to styling her hair in the morning.

"Based on that feedback, we created products that use a heat styling technology called 'Smart Arrange,'" said Ms. Nakajima.

In 2017, they released the Smart Style line, which was made to reduce bedhead. The resulting interest in time-saving hair care exceeded all their expectations.

"The success of Smart Style really gave us confidence. That's precisely why I think we were able to take the plunge and do this revamp," said Ms. Nakajima.

And what did they bring to the table? A shampoo to change our lifestyle.

"We investigated the technical action behind drying the hair as well as what hinders women from achieving the perfect hair style and we found that the cause is tangled hair. We wondered whether this was something we could solve with the research on hair cuticle, our biggest strength as Essential in order to fight bedhead and tangled hair."

(Shunichi Watanabe, Managing Researcher at Kao Hair Care Laboratory)

The next figure in our story is a man who has spent his whole career at Kao, unraveling the secrets of hair to keep customers' locks looking their best. His name is Shunichi Watanabe, managing researcher at Kao's research lab. He joined the company in 2002 as a specialist in hair research. Since 2014, he has headed up research for Essential and was in charge of its latest revamp.

"Essential has developed alongside the progress of research into the hair cuticle. You might remember our old commercials, where there were pictures showing lifted cuticles on the hair shaft? The close-ups of the scaley, rough hair had more impact than the ones with smooth hair, didn't they?" said Mr. Watanabe with a chuckle.

At the time, it seemed like a strange experiment, but the commercials spoke to a lot of women.

"We figured if women understood how much damage their hair goes through, they would also become more aware of hair care, which really hit home. The word 'cuticle' wasn't widely recognized here until that commercial came out," said Mr. Watanabe.

Mr. Watanabe continues his research, poring over strands of hair from people all over the world. When we asked him about what makes hair beautiful, he told us it all comes down to cuticle care.

"One part of beautiful hair is smoothness. For example, take a woman whose hair gets caught when she brushes it. If you look at her hair under a microscope, you can see that the scale-like layers of the cuticle are peeling up, which causes the hair to become tangled. If the cuticles are properly closed, the hair runs through the fingers easily and looks smooth as well."

Mr. Watanabe told us that his laboratory's mission is to create products that repair the lifted cuticle and leave the hair in better condition than before.

There was one other goal for this improvement to the brand. "Up until now, we've released products to treat hair problems but the marketing team wanted to put out a product that would change the customer’s lifestyle," explained Mr. Watanabe.

"This isn't an era of treating problems, this is an era of preventing problems," said Mr. Watanabe. "You might think if it’s not a sickness do I really want to go out of my way to prevent it?' But taking measures for a better lifestyle is a smarter lifestyle.
With improvements in product technology and hair care routine, any kind of hair can be beautiful. Essential wants to make that possible for everyone," said Mr. Watanabe.

They focused their attention on a formula that would eliminate tangles in the hair.

"The main hair concerns like frizz, breakage, and dryness are caused mainly by knots and tangles. We thought that if we could solve that problem, then people would probably feel less stress while taking care of their hair," explained Mr. Watanabe.

It would be a product that eliminated tangles, but more than that, one that felt great to use. "We expected it to be tough, but this version of Essential really gave us a hard time," he said as he thought back to development.

The team came up with more than 1000 formulations for this single product, which is unusual even in the Kao laboratory.

"Hair research does measurements on the nanometer scale (one millionth of a millimeter). Changing the ingredients by even a tenth of a gram changes the results for the hair, so we couldn't let ourselves slip up. While we were doing trials, we had volunteers help out and we would do precise checks while they washed their hair. From how well it lathered up to how easily they could run their fingers through their hair, we did countless checks on how the hair felt afterwards and then went back to the drawing board. It really tested our patience," laughed Mr. Watanabe.

In the final days of June, Kao held a product launch event for the new Essential line. The centerpiece of the new product's innovation was Kao's proprietary "Auto Separation Technology."

"To explain it simply, we developed an ingredient that stops the hair from tangling all together during showers. Usually, the main method to prevent the hair from tangling together involves oil-based ingredients like polymers or silicone to attach to the hair first, then worked in with the fingers or a brush. However, we've used an ingredient that is easily water soluble, moves freely through water, and attaches to each strand of hair, which helps it automatically untangle knots and prevent tangles," explained Mr. Watanabe.

You can really feel this technology at work with “Essential Smart Blow Dry”. They've managed to reduce a lot of the stress that surrounds the blow drying step of our hair care routines.

"Wet hair tends to clump together, but now each strand stays separate without tangling, so the air from the dryer can pass through more easily. During testing, blow drying time was reduced by 20%," said Mr. Watanabe.

What did the brand do to establish a new value for hair care?

"Women desire not just beautiful hair, but how efficiently they can keep beautiful hair. This doesn’t mean to simply use good quality products but also to treat the hair properly. So we created this sticker as a solution," explained Mr. Kamiya, the project leader.

"The sticker doesn’t show the ‘ideal hair type’ but instead shows the ‘ideal hair care’. Use this for drying your hair faster; use this for perfectly styling the hair with heat… We hoped for efficient selection of products and a sticker to change the lifestyle altogether," said Mr. Kamiya.

"The way hair care is in Japan now, you can't just go on and on about the technology. You have to offer a new value to improve customers’ lifestyles." Mr. Kamiya's words might hold the key to a new future for Japan's hair care market or even the world's. We wouldn't want to miss out on life-changing shampoo and conditioner, right?

If it’s about hair, leave it up to Kao! For our final chapter, we'd like to share a little hair trivia with you. First off, have you ever noticed small bumps on your shampoo bottles?

"Whether you have your contacts out in the shower or have your eyes closed, we developed a way to make it easy for you to tell shampoo and conditioner apart. We went through some prototypes and also had some help from a school for the blind and create a design that allows anyone to distinguish between the two with just a touch," explained Noriko Tawara, who works in Kao's product PR department.

It's a common design in Japan, but it was originally Kao's idea!

Q: Give us the details on how the bumps came about!

"We've had a lot of customers come through our service center, saying they mix up the shampoo and conditioner, which is what got us started," said Ms. Tawara as she told us the story. It must be nice to see customer feedback take shape this way!

Q: These days, it's natural to take a patent for original designs and logos, but did you not patent this design?

"In 1991, we did receive a patent, but we thought it had widespread necessity for society, so we decided to let the patent go," said Ms. Tawara.

That's a bit surprising! Not everyone knows this right?

"We worked to standardize the design throughout the industry so that consumers wouldn't be confused and currently a majority of shampoo bottles in Japan have these bumps. "
So that's the story behind those little bumps!

We touched on historical hair washing customs earlier, but the history of hair conditioner is a bit more misty. We asked Ms. Tawara from the product PR department about it, and she told us about the company's first conditioner, Hair Rinse Kao Tender, which came out in 1965.

Q: You only needed to condition once a week? How was this used?

At the time, the company suggested using the conditioner once per week and to be "rinsed out with warm water."

"Some people now might not believe it, but it's actually a pretty recent turn of events," said Ms. Tawara.

"There were a lot of special benefits being touted for conditioner. It helped care for the hair, reduce damage, and prevent static electricity build-up. It helped you brush through the hair more easily, and helped your perm or set look nicer," continued Ms. Tawara.

And using it once a week? According to Ms. Tawara, "That was because at the time, people only washed their hair once or twice a week."

The sentō, or traditional Japanese bath house, has a vital place in the history of Japanese hair washing customs. The furoshiki, which literally means "bath-spread," is a kind of cloth traditionally used to wrap or carry goods. This humble piece of cloth is inextricably linked to the culture of the sentō in a way you might not expect. We checked out the Kao Museum to find out more about the furoshiki.

Q: When did sentō become a crucial part of Japanese life?

"Sentō culture has been close to the hearts of the public in Japan for a long time, but it began to develop during the Edo era (1603-1868). At the time, they reached a peak of 500 establishments in operation. Later, after the Meiji era, they spread throughout the country. The year 1965 is known as the peak of sentō culture, when more than 18,000 baths were in business.

Q: How did furoshiki come to be?

There are a lot of possible explanations, but one stuck out to us as particularly convincing.
In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), the shōgun built a bath, or "furo," for the use of visiting feudal lords. The users of the bath could wrap their clothes in pieces of cloth. To make sure that these bundles were recognizable, each cloth was printed with the motif of the guest's family crest. As "a spread used in the bath," the name eventually became "furoshiki (bath-spread)." By the Edo era, it was a common sight to see people heading off to the public bath with their change of clothes carefully wrapped up in a beautifully printed furoshiki.

Seiichi Maruta
Kao Museum Manager, Kao Corporation Cultural Information Department. He has been working as the museum director of the Kao Museum since 2014. His job is not limited to only educating the public about Kao products and he also helps share information about changes in Japan's beauty culture and lifestyle.

Mitsutoshi Kamiya
Senior Marketer, Kao Hair Care Business Department. He first worked in the sales department, working on men's brand marketing, before taking over hair care in 2013. After working at the Singapore branch, he took over responsibilities for the Essential brand.

Shunichi Watanabe
Managing Researcher, Kao Hair Care Laboratory. He has been with the company for 15 years. After completing graduate school and receiving his Master's degree, he joined the company in 2002. Since 2014, he has headed up research for Essential products, developing ingredients and formulas, as well as researching their effects on the hair. He also works on trend surveys to stay ahead of changes in the hair care market.

Shino Nakajima
Kao Hair Care Department. After graduating from university, she entered the company in 2015. This is her fourth year in the hair care department. She participated in the latest revamp of Essential.

Photography/Daichi Saito
Interview & Text/Mayumi Hasegawa