Toilets in Japan veer between two extremes: the squatters, which are slightly more advanced than a hole in the ground, and the “super toilets” tricked out with heated seats, automatic lids, and bidets. Both types of toilet elicit a strong response among visitors, but most Westerners go home raving about the latter type. Toto is responsible for them all, though it is best known for its high-end range of automated thrones, in particular the Washlet and the Neorest, the Lamborghini of loos.
The Toto brand has dominated the Japanese bath and toilet market for over 90 years, but 1982 was landmark. That year Toto released the Washlet, the world’s first toilet equipped with automated bidet, onto the market. The original ad campaign did not beat around the bush, with a female celebrity bending over suggestively and proclaiming that “butts just want to be cleaned,” followed by a spurt of water jetting from the product. The ads made a splash with consumers, and it is now estimated that more than 60 percent of Japanese households have sprung for the Washlet, or similar models from competing companies.
Sensing impending market saturation at home in the late 1980s, Toto turned to untapped markets abroad. Over time, the United States and China developed into the main focus of Toto’s overseas operations, and it has even established a manufacturing plant in Georgia. In 2007, combined overseas sales topped US$ 480 million, accounting for well over ten percent of the brand’s net sales.
Still, success on the balance sheet belies the persistent lack of brand awareness in major markets like the US. However, this may be partly by design. Staying out of the big-box retailers has apparently been anything but a washout. In fact, operating through local retailers and contractors has allowed the brand to spread organically, through word-of-mouth recommendations, and build a steady niche for itself. At the same time, the strategy has guaranteed higher margins by avoiding the cut-throat prices of the big-boxes.
The spoils of the middle of the tail may be enjoyable for the time being, but Toto has still larger ambitions. It is not just about selling more toilets, but about driving a cultural shift in the bathroom. The word on the street indicates that the average American consumer doesn’t have the time for a sanitary rinse, nor does he or she find it especially appealing, or even sanitary. But is this really how the majority feels? Or is the real issue a lack of awareness and education?
Betting partly on the latter, Toto has stepped up advertising efforts in the US, with a prominent ad campaign that drew on the original Japanese commercial. The brand released a series of ads in digital and print featuring naked backsides painted over with smiley faces, and the tagline “clean is happy.” A Times Square billboard featuring the ad drew the ire of local clergy, prompting the ad agency responsible to “cover up” the offending flesh. Although the incident prompted Toto to issue an official apology to the community, the brand couldn’t have been too unhappy about all the free press it garnered.
Establishing greater brand awareness also brings with it the challenge of sharing brand values with potential customers. Although sophistication, intelligence, and comfort seem to be some of the benefits offered by experience with the product, the message does not seem to be well supported through marketing communications.
Indeed, the home office lists as its core principles the same clichés as every Japanese company: devotion to quality, building customer trust—all very noble ideals, but not distinctive enough to serve as the basis for a unique brand image. Even the brand’s environmental credentials—many of its toilets are equipped with its proprietary water-conserving flush systems—do not seem particularly well highlighted. For example, the company has done little to leverage the fact that celebrities with green aspirations such as Leo DiCaprio have had Toto toilets installed in their homes.
Regardless of the issues facing the brand, Toto seems on the cusp of global domination. Much like other Japanese brands, the Toto brand is respected for its innovative, high-quality products, but is waiting for the marketing strategy that will take it to the next level.
Is 2008 the year it ascends to the throne?