Firms strop goods as facial hair finds favor

Schick, Braun spot new opening as beards, mustaches grow popular among the young and society grows more tolerant

by Shinichi Terada

Japanese men have long shunned facial hair, as many companies frowned on employees with beards or mustaches, or even prohibited them in the workplace.

But society has recently become more tolerant of facial hair. Many young Japanese have begun to feel that it is cool and fashionable to sport beards or mustaches after baseball player Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, former soccer player Hidetoshi Nakata and various TV celebrities have done so in recent years.

Shaver manufacturers are meanwhile looking to cash in on the trend. Schick Japan K.K. and Procter & Gamble Co.’s Braun are stepping up efforts to win over young male consumers.

In February, Schick’s Japan unit started the Web site hige-chen.com that lets users upload their photos and experiment with 1,000 different forms of facial hair, including amusingly shaped ones such as hearts and numbers. The Web site, which can be viewed in 3-D, helps users work out which style of facial hair looks good on them.

It also offers advice on the most suitable style depending on the occasion. The online campaign is designed to promote the company’s Quattro4 Titanium Revolution, which is a four-blade razor at one end and an electric trimmer at the other.

“Unexpectedly, our survey found that the biggest obstacle is Japanese men’s perception that facial hair doesn’t look good on them, rather than rules set by their companies,” said Masue Murata, a product supervisor at Schick Japan. “We also found that men want to experiment with different styles. Some want to shave, while others want to trim a little bit. That’s why we decided to set up the Web site to change their perceptions.”

To promote its products effectively, Schick used a Japanese model in its TV commercial for the Quattro4 Titanium Revolution.

“We used (Okinawa’s Masashi Kubota) as Japanese people tend to feel an affinity with him,” Murata said. “By using him, we wanted to send a message that Japanese can become fashionable with facial hair. If we had used a non-Japanese model, the ad’s image would have distanced Japanese men from facial hair.”

Statistics show that the popularity of facial hair is on the rise. The number of Japanese men who sport facial hair increased 20 percent to 6 million in 2006 from the previous year, according to P&G.

In addition to popular sports players and TV celebrities sporting facial hair, one big factor that might have boosted its popularity, especially among the young, is that Japanese women have started to think of men with beards and mustaches as “sexy,” according to industry officials.

Given the wider acceptance of facial hair, the industry is hoping men who care about their appearance will spend more money on grooming products.

The electric razor market, however, has stayed almost flat due to the nation’s declining population. The market, which also includes facial hair trimming products, edged down 1 percent in value terms in 2007 from 2006, according to market researcher GfK Marketing Services Japan Ltd., which monitors sales at 4,500 electronics stores nationwide.

One segment that has the potential to grow, albeit at a slow pace, is the electric trimmer segment, industry officials said.

There are more and more men who care about their appearance and grooming in recent years, as Japanese women find men with clean and smooth skin attractive, according to Hiroyuki Tagishi, a beauty care product developer at Matsushita Electric Works Ltd. Japanese men even trim their eyebrows these days, Tagishi added.

Men with facial hair still account for only a small proportion of the population compared with other countries, but this also means there is much room for growth.

According to Schick’s survey, more than 50 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 39 have facial hair in Europe, while the percentage is about 60 percent to 70 percent in the United States. In Japan, however, only 20 percent of men have facial hair, the survey found.

To stimulate demand, Matsushita began to put out a new trimmer product every year, starting in 2005.

“We want to reinvigorate the domestic market by offering a comprehensive grooming product lineup to young men, ranging from facial hair trimmers to nose hair trimmers,” said Kenta Ikeda, another of Matsushita’s beauty care product developers.

Industry officials are also counting on growth in the electric razor market because Japanese men are said to prefer them over standard razors.

“Japan is a peculiar market, as many favor electric shavers and other dry shavers over wet shavers. The phenomenon is not seen in other countries,” said Takahiro Hidaka, a P&G official. “The Japanese love home electronic gadgets. Also, Japanese men often take a bath in the evening and shave the next morning with an electric shaver without wetting their faces.”

P&G is promoting its all-in-one electric razor and trimmer, the Braun cruZer3. The company added a cheaper and new flashy blue model to its lineup in June to lure young men.

Many of the company’s electric razors targeting older men cost over ¥10,000, but the Braun cruZer3 is priced at around ¥8,000 at major electronics stores in Tokyo.

Although people in the industry are aware it will take time for demand for facial hair-related products to strengthen, grooming professionals are aware that the environment surrounding facial hair is gradually changing.

“During Japan’s rapid economic growth in the 1960s and ’70s, companies forced their employees to shave, as they wanted to control individualism. But the economy has been stagnant recently and companies began to give more value to individual characteristics. Beards and mustaches are one example,” said Minoru Fujii, a barber in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture.

Fujii, who is also a member of a “hige” (beard) club of grooming professionals, noted that men tend to start growing facial hair when they want to change.

“In Japan, beards and mustaches were historically symbols of power holders,” he said, referring to figures such as warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 16th century. “Men also wore facial hair when they needed to change the world, such as going to war.

“Some, especially young men in their 20s, grow facial hair to please women, while others do so to show their dissatisfaction with society,” he added.