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“When I’m advising British companies about their approach to the Japanese market, I always emphasise the value of a longterm perspective: loyalty will be repaid with loyalty”, said British Ambassador Tim Hitchens. “Unilever provides the perfect illustration—there can’t be a household in Japan now that does not have a Unilever product in their kitchen or bathroom. “At a time when Japan is trying to position itself as a base for Asian headquarters, it’s fascinating to know that Unilever’s first factory—100 years old this year and still in production in Kobe— was seen as their bridgehead for entering the Chinese market, too. “There is much for both Britain and Japan to learn from Unilever’s story”.
Ray Bremner OBE is president and CEO of Unilever Japan Customer Marketing K.K.
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ounded in 1930, Unilever now boasts products used daily by more than 2bn consumers around the world. The firm’s portfolio of over 400 brands includes food, beverages, home and personal care products. The firm resulted from the merger of British soap maker Lever Brothers and Dutch margarine producer Margarine Unie. In 1905, William Lever, founder of Lever Brothers, came to Japan—already an export market for Lever products— where, in 1913, he set up Lever’s first factory in Kobe. It still stands today. Lever was convinced that Japan was a market of the future and that he should invest heavily in the country. In 1928, the factory closed. The firm made a comeback to Japan in 1964, the year of the Summer Olympics, and then invested heavily here to expand the business, entering several new categories by exploiting the strength of their global presence. One of Unilever’s earliest personal care brands is Lux, which became the brand leader in hair care in Japan while, at the end of the 1990s, Dove was launched with great success. To meet the needs of highly demanding Japanese consumers, Unilever adapts their brands in all points from formulations to advertising. Further, Lux has developed over 20,000 shampoo prototypes to date for the Japanese market.
The founder of Lever Brothers, William Lever, came to Japan in 1905.
With women making up 75% of their consumer base and most of the purchases of Unilever products made by women, Unilever is a firm believer in diversity. In Japan, many still believe that women should be devoted mothers and housekeepers. This can often hold them back from building a career. “As a principle, Unilever is against the idea of quotas, as we believe employees should be promoted on merit and not gender”, said Ray Bremner OBE, president and CEO of Unilever Japan Customer Marketing K.K. “Our challenge is that, as you go through the organisation, the more senior the post, the fewer women we have”, he said. To attract and retain talent that is reflective of its consumer base, Unilever has introduced a number of changes to create an inclusive environment and promote work-life balance. These include flexible working hours, the option to work from home, as well as a number of different types of child support. “The number one challenge we have in business, I think, is the amount of overtime that is perceived as being necessary to fulfil your obligation to the company. “We’re trying to really cut that, so people leave the office much earlier [than before]”, he said.