High Potential Under The Bottom
Historically, in a country of immigrants of differing cultures, languages and accents, there could be no beating around the bush or assumption of common understanding. It is no surprise then that Americans are known for unabashedly getting to the point in the most direct manner. In this cultural context, why are Americans so squeamish at the thought of cleansing their nether regions with warm after using the toilet? Is dry paper really so much more pleasant? When I installed a “warm-water cleaning toilet seat” (generically called “washlet” in Japan, though technically that’s a Toto brand name) in my home in the suburbs of New York City, this toilet became a major party trick. Embarrassed giggles were the result of the mere suggestion to try it out.
Introduced in a big way to the Japanese market in 1982, the market penetration of the washlet-type toilet was 73.5% in 2013 – more than that of microwave ovens and dishwashers. Initially, however, adoption was slow. It took 18 years for Toto to sell 10 million units, but 20 more million units were sold during the next 12 years. Today, even in public restrooms, washlet-type toilets are ubiquitous and, increasingly, viewed as absolute necessities. Spend some time in Japan and sitting on a cold toilet seat feels downright uncivilized. Today’s washlet-type toilets have evolved into wonderlands of functionality, featuring automatic lid-opening, warmed seats, bottom spraying, bidet spraying, dryer functions and even faux-flushing sounds to muffle the more unpleasant actual sounds that can happen in the bathroom. In 2012, these toilets were recognized as a “Mechanical Engineering Heritage” – – the first household appliance to be recognized as such.
Toto billboard that was used in New York’s Time Square in 2007. The campaign’s tagline was ‘Clean is Happy’
Toto introduced the washlet-type toilet in the U.S. in 1989, but sales remain miniscule 26 years later. Only 14% of Toto’s total sales currently come from outside of Japan. So, what prevents these amazing bottom-cleaning machines from gaining a following beyond Japan? In the US, the distribution system is an issue, with a very small direct-to-consumer portion of the market. Additionally, the plumbing supply industry is not one of quick technology adoption. Finally, salespeople may feel uncomfortable talking with customers about bodily functions.
In this context, generating “pull-through” demand is the only way to growth. There is little doubt that a pristinely clean bottom is not a uniquely Japanese cultural preference. Every culture values cleanliness (next to godliness, after all!). I am convinced that there is a way to get to the communication tipping point with American consumers and unleash enormous sales potential for Toto and its competitors. Below are some ideas:
Consumer education done with humour and playfulness may be able to break through discomfort with the topic, for both consumers and salespeople. Many imagine that water spraying from a toilet must be dirty water from the bowl. Just the idea of warmth near the toilet conjures images of a petri dish of bacterial growth. And, how do you use the thing? Do you wipe first, or not at all? How do you get dry? Basic instructional manuals describing usage in a playful way could help take the embarrassment out of the conversation, as well as create a perceived consumer need where there wasn’t one before.
Washlet technology must be broken down into user-friendly explanations
In Japan, the first mechanical toilets were seat-warming only. The spraying functions came later, once consumers were acclimated to technology-assisted toilet practices. This gradual approach may be effective with American consumers as well. The full deluxe package from the start might be overwhelming and off-putting. The value of a warm toilet seat in the dead of winter is easy to comprehend and embrace. Add to that an automatic lifting lid, and benefits are made fully tangible and relevant.
Luxury has fully entered the U.S. bathroom in recent years – huge bathtubs, fireplaces, his-and-her walk-in closets, double and triple sinks and ever-larger dimensions. If washlet-type toilets could be positioned as part of a luxurious, calming space, it could feel more appropriate for American households. Linked to this, there would surely be an element of status expression for adopters of this hi-tech and costly technology. In fact, it is the most expensive models of washlet-type toilets, with the most decked-out features, that are selling, according to a sales executive at a major U.S. plumbing supplier. This was the case in both Japan and Korea (40% penetration), where status-seeking was a key driver in the early adoption of mechanical toilets.
A US bathroom in need of a Washlet?
Add to any of these the secondary benefits of cleanliness (obvious, no?), experience (try it and you’ll understand…) and environment (less paper used), and the potential remains huge for the brand that finds the communication key to unlock the American consumer’s avoidance of potty talk.
POST BY DEANNA ELSTROM