Stomach for the fight

Yakult’s launch may have created the pro-biotic drinks sector in the UK, but it no longer leads the market and could have to rethink its quirky brand image to win back consumers. By Martin Croft.

Yakult, the quirky Japanese pro-biotic brand, is facing a number of problems. While it was the first major brand into the pro-biotic drinks sector when it launched in 1996, and dominated its market for the first few years, it has been pushed into third place by bigger-spending, more aggressive and more consumer-oriented brands such as Actimel from Danone and Vitality from Müller, while Raisio’s Benecol and Unilever’s Flora are coming up fast from behind.

According to figures from market research company Euromonitor, Actimel took 40% of the UK market by value in 2005, Müller took 14.5% and Yakult was on 10%.

Its second problem lies in its Japanese heritage. With the obvious exception of the major consumer electronics brands such as Sony and the big car marques, Japanese brands tend to do well in the UK only when they target extremely niche sectors – hence the success of premium beers such as Kirin and Asahi. In such specialist sectors, brands can remain true to their Japanese values and attributes, however odd they may seem to a mainstream Western audience. But in wider markets experts argue that Japanese brands must dilute their “Japanese-ness” if they are to succeed in winning over UK consumers.

So far, Yakult has resolutely refused to change (except to launch a “light” version with less sugar). As one marketing expert who has worked in the pro-biotic sector says wryly: “It comes in one flavour and one size bottle. It only comes in one colour, because that’s the colour it is naturally. There are no price promotions or BOGOFs, and the brand does not do anything that is not directly related to getting the bacteria inside you.”

Also, as Sam Thorburn, a research analyst with Euromonitor, observes, in a market where some products can claim to target three or more health “problems” at once, for example by combining pro-biotic with cholesterol-lowering Omega 3, Yakult is a one-function product. It delivers friendly bacteria to your stomach, where they help with your digestion. That’s it.

Thorburn adds that Yakult in Japan “is like Marmite in the UK. In Japan, there is a real emotional attachment to the brand. They know what it does. Research suggests that it has a large number of benefits: but perhaps they need to be communicating those functional benefits better in the UK.” And while the quirky packaging stands out on the shelf, she says, there is no space on it to carry consumer education messages.

However, Yakult marketing director Alan Jelley says the brand has a strong and loyal following. He adds: “Yakult has never tried to be part of the mainstream and we are happy to continue to go against conventional wisdom. We prefer to continue doing things differently and focus on developing our brand on a longer timescale.”

Ellen Kent, client services director at Nexus/H, which has worked for Yakult for two years, disputes the vision of Yakult as quirky and out of touch. She says: “Yakult has an awful lot to say beyond the little bottle. It is an incredibly innovative organisation that has been developing a wide range of innovative products. You can’t be that backward if you created a completely new market sector as Yakult did in 1996.”

Yakult, Kent adds, is focused on wellbeing, with a range of products developed through its research into the human digestive system, including foodstuffs, drinks, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals (among them anti-cancer treatments). “For that kind of company to be seen as backward is just incredibly wrong,” she says.

In its home market of Japan, Yakult is delivered to consumers’ front doors on a regular basis by an army of 50,000 Yakult ladies – a sort of cross between Express Dairies and “Avon calling”.

In the UK Yakult’s current campaign, created by Wieden & Kennedy (W&K), focuses on its heritage and 70-year history, but the actual claims it makes about what Yakult can do for consumers are somewhat woolly. Indeed, in 2005, the Advertising Standards Authority told the company not to repeat medical claims it made for the product.

W&K has now lost the estimated £5m Yakult account, after only 18 months on the job (MW last week). It appears that Yakult UK may have wanted to stay with W&K, but Yakult is reviewing its advertising on a pan-European basis, and after initially saying that the UK would not be included in that review, has apparently had a change of heart.

Neil Christie, managing director of W&K London, says it would be a disaster for Yakult if the result of the pan-European review was that “it decided to ape its competition and ended up looking like Actimel”. W&K’s ads, in a deliberately retro style, focused on the company’s scientific heritage, stressing that Yakult developed out of the pioneering work carried out by Dr Minoru Shirota, medical researcher at Kyoto University, who isolated the bacteria Lactobacillus casei Shirota, the main active ingredient in Yakult.

The W&K ads replaced the campaign created by cdp-travissully, which had worked on the Yakult account since the brand’s launch in 1996. The ads revolved around the romance between a young woman and a nerdish boffin, and attempted to highlight the health benefits of Yakult’s “friendly bacteria”.

But marketing expert Paul Cousins says that if Yakult is ever to be anything more than a quirky, niche brand, then it will have to learn from its rivals. Cousins, a director with new product development and branding agency Catalyst, says: “There has to be some degree of evolution. It looks tired on shelf; it doesn’t make you want to pick it.

Facts and figures
1930 Dr Minoru Shirota isolates the bacteria Lactobacillus casei Shirota, which can survive in the stomach. Shirota develops Yakult, initially dispensed from his clinic, then door-to-door. The name Yakult comes from the Esperanto word for yoghurt
1955 Shirota founds Yakult Honsha Co, Tokyo, to meet growing demand
1996 Yakult launches in UK
2007 Yakult is consumed by 25 million people in 27 countries. In Japan, Yakult’s company philosophy, “Working on a healthy society,” is actively promoted via social and cultural activities and an army of 50,000 “Yakult Ladies”.

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