Vanity suits Elaine Too to a tee and she is not abashed to declare it. “I am darn vain — that’s why I have been in beauty all this while. I cannot imagine managing another business line because I’m vain to the max.”
Looking her best does not stop at the self for the managing director of Shiseido Malaysia Sdn Bhd. “She takes care of herself and makes sure we do the same for ourselves because we have to feel good to look good,” says Zoe Liew, digital marketing and PR manager for the brand here.
Again, things do not stop there. Shiseido is about personal care for women. Japan’s first private Western-style pharmacy when it opened in 1872 in Ginza, Tokyo, the company now operates in about 120 countries and regions, offering skincare, makeup, suncare and fragrance products.
Innovation is at the heart of this cosmetics giant that turns 150 this year. With a heritage rooted in history and tradition, and goals focused on the future, it is marking this major anniversary with a campaign that taps the wellspring of its inspirations: From life comes beauty.
True to Shiseido’s way of doing things, the campaign message is deep and embracing, says Too. In a capsule, it aims to convey the brand’s enduring focus on life as the essence of beauty and its unflagging endeavour to uncover what connects beauty and life.
Three limited-edition products launched globally to celebrate this landmark occasion encapsulate that connection, which propels its approach to product development.
Things and times change but the quest for beauty continues. “In today’s era of uncertainty and hesitation, what kind of beauty are we seeking? Our conclusion? Life. If people around the world, regardless of age, gender and region, continue the conversation on how beauty and life are related, we believe it will inspire changes for a better world,” says Shiseido’s chief brand officer Ryota Yukisada on its website.
Past, present and future all have a place in the limited-edition products — Eudermine Revitalizing Essence, Ultimune Power Infusing Concentrate III and Ultimune Future Power Shot — which individually symbolise heritage, living innovation and future.
An arabesque motif taken from wrapping paper created in the Taisho era (1912 to 1926) by Sue Yabe, a member of the design department at the time, now decorates the containers and outer cartons of the products. That original design was turned into a three-dimensional form, then photographed from various angles “to express the dynamism of life that opens up a new future while harnessing 150 years of history”.
The global campaign is geared towards getting people to think and talk about the essence of beauty and the life within it. A movie emphasising the company’s belief that beauty has the power to give people hope and courage, especially in times of uncertainty, is available on YouTube. It includes interviews with 150 participants of different ethnic backgrounds, genders and ages from various parts of the world commenting on this.
Shiseido also launched a digital Life and Beauty Museum via a website comprising three content themes: Stories, Innovation and History. The first features seven people active in various fields talking about beauty, while the second introduces the spirit of scientific inquiry into life as the essence of beauty.
The History segment highlights the brand’s pursuit of the link between life and beauty — especially skincare, which is linked to health rituals and a time-honoured Japanese tradition — dating back to its origins.
Consumers can get acquainted with the faces of Shiseido, among them professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe, singer-songwriter Hikaru Utada and actress Ursula Corbero, and celebrities connected to it via campaign advertisements and on social media.
In Malaysia, the big birthday bash includes an installation that stood outside Pavilion Kuala Lumpur in Bukit Bintang from June 29 to July 9. The Crimson Cloud is by local architectural designer Pamela Tan, who creates pieces embodying layers of spatial and experiential narratives.
The three limited-edition products are also available here and there will be on-ground activities at Pavilion KL and a few other malls where customers can have a feel of those bestsellers. Online, Shiseido’s e-commerce site and platforms such as Lazada and Shopee will be shouting 150 with special campaigns.
Asked why an installation to mark its 150th, Liew chips in, “Art is ingrained in Shiseido’s heritage. Our first president, Shinzo Fukuhara, founded Shiseido Gallery, Japan’s oldest art gallery, in 1919. He was an aspiring artist.
“Pamela’s installation is inspired by our DNA and research. Look at the structure from the top and you’ll see it’s shaped like a petri dish — to bring out the story of how important R&D is to Shiseido.”
“Also, we want to be outstanding,” says Too. “Who has done art before? Who is more artsy than Shiseido? We are, and we dare to say that loudly.”
She recalls how the company once fashioned 26 different shapes of bottles for one SKU (stock keeping unit) package. “For us, we went crazy managing that. For them, no, it’s about art. They talk about how people feel when they hold the product for the first time. Subsequently, when customers buy it, we want to refresh [that feeling] although the contents are the same.
“You may think the things the brand comes up with are non-commercial, but they really stand out in the eyes of customers as well as the competitor. When you get into it, you truly appreciate their eye for detail and beauty.”
It is the rare company that can boast an unbroken lineage spanning 150 years, Too emphasises. Rarer still is one that believes beauty means wishing for the happiness of others, and whose mission is to create beauty innovations for a better world.
“It’s beyond your imagination what a beauty company will put into its products, using knowledge gained from its heritage. Who preserves the past in the same manner? Shiseido’s history is its treasure. They value the past and yet look so far ahead. You walk into their museum and you feel so proud.”
She means the Shiseido Corporate Museum adjacent to Shiseido Art House in Shizuoka, southwest of Tokyo. On show are promotional materials such as packaging, newspaper and magazine advertisements, data and records that enable visitors to trace the brand’s corporate evolution and achievements over the years, as well as the stories behind various key products.
“It’s unreal, their filing and archiving of data and how they have preserved things,” Too exclaims. The company’s first advert is among the displays, likewise the first uniform worn by its beauty consultants — not a reproduction but the original attire itself.
There are guarded formulas for treasured and award-winning products and those brought out to commemorate special occasions. One item that takes pride of place is Eudermine, the first lotion based on Western pharmacology Shiseido produced in 1897, the year it became an independent cosmetics division.
Shiseido’s red water, so-called because of its vivid, grape wine colour, is recognisable today for the deep red synonymous with the brand, and its approach of leveraging dermatological knowledge in research to formulate products that boost skin health. And as every woman, vain or not, knows, healthy skin makes one glow.
The Corporate Museum opened its doors in 1992, on the 120th anniversary of the business’ founding. Perched on a hill with a beautiful exterior designed to impress, it epitomises how carefully the conservative company protects its name and heritage, from when 23-year-old Arinobu Fukuhara founded Shiseido.
Disillusioned with the inferior medicines on the market, the chief pharmacist of the Japanese navy worked with some colleagues to find an alternative way to health through Western science. Their inspiration? Take everything and anything good in this world and use it to create new things.
Shi sei do means “owned by a pharmacist” in Chinese, and Fukuhara looked to Eastern philosophy when naming his pharmacy after a passage in the I Ching — an ancient Chinese divination manual and a book of wisdom — that reads: Praise the virtues of the earth, which nurtures new life and brings forth significant values.
“The Shiseido name is its pride. When we represent the company abroad, we are thoroughly briefed — the No 1 thing is to protect the name. There are a lot of dos and don’ts, a lot of alignment. That’s why things move very slowly here compared with a lot of other companies,” says Too, who became Shiseido Malaysia MD in 2017, a year after joining as general manager. Her quick rise raised eyebrows: She was the first woman to helm the local operation since it was set up in 2005 and the first to assume a leadership position that had always been held by Japanese men.
Talk of her early years with the brand brings to mind what she noticed from the start and hastened to set right: Shiseido was a sleeping beauty.
“We were so quiet that no one took notice of us except our customers. No one took us seriously but I saw opportunities. So I said, let’s wake them up and see how we can play it big. We communicated with all levels and did a lot of training for junior staff and beauty consultants so they could speak competently and have a stronger presence. We recruited more pillar people and made online louder. I am not sure about other countries but we managed to revive the company in Malaysia.”
Rousing the beauty from her slumber had the ripple effect of awakening those unaware of what it is about. Given its size and place in many people’s lives, the time is ripe for some chest-thumping.
“At the international level, I think they have realised after 150 years that we need to make ourselves known — who we are, how far we have come, how we have evolved. Not many companies could have survived what Shiseido went through — two world wars, the Great Depression and more. And it stands tall today in Ginza Street.”
What is equally gripping is the long and rich brand story. “You would think the pharmacist who founded the company would have come out with a face cream as its first innovation. But no, he released the Fukuhara Toothpaste in 1888, the first toothpaste in Japan,” Too recaps.
“After that, Fukuhara said, ‘Let’s develop something else’. And that was Eudermine, in 1897, which led Shiseido to cosmetics. He liked travelling and went to Europe, where he saw a soda machine. ‘Eh, we don’t have this; we only have tea’. He brought back soda fountains and Shisedo installed them in-store and started selling soda water and ice cream. The machine is in the museum. It’s super big.”
Sugar and fizz aside, everything Shiseido rolls out is backed by intensive R&D. “They mean business and they know what they say. They have a huge bank of patented formulas and have won a lot of awards for advances in products and ingredients. But they don’t shout about it.
“Even when we think something is so good and want to add that in small print, they say, ‘No. That is for you to disseminate through your beauty consultant, to have a conversation with your consumer. We don’t need to put everything in black and white’. That’s why we sometimes feel frustrated. They are great scientists but shy marketers, typical of the modest Japanese.”
But customers who know and like the brand have stayed, their loyalty sealed by quality products that deliver on the beauty promise they are looking for. Malaysians tend to go for colours and fragrance, with more skewed towards brightening, she observes.
Too shares that what she finds missing in beauty today is not about the essentials or meeting customers’ needs. Moving forward, the business hinges on the lifestyle of the younger generation. “If it feels good when they pick up something, they want to feel good having it.”
It is like how the café scene has changed, she adds. “Do you need dessert? ‘No. But I feel good sitting in there. I want a shot for IG.’ They know dessert is not good for them but they will still call a few friends to sit there and pinch one piece of cake. They are happy.
“So we have to tell Japan the packaging has to be modern. It’s about lifestyle. We must know how young people today think, their preferences, why and how to give them what they want. The beauty business has to evolve and be more embracing of the customer. It’s a good thing I have three daughters who ask me to buy all sorts of products to understand how young consumers behave.”
Speaking her mind and putting her words into action is second nature to Too, who has two decades of experience in the beauty business. Learning about the market and working with headquarters is par for the course. Looking back over her years at Shiseido, Too is proudest of changing the attitude and mindset of how the Malaysian team works and driving home the need to shake up the system at the corporate and brand levels.
“They don’t practise stepping out or speaking up. You wait for [instructions] from the top down and don’t have much ownership of what you do. What I am proud of is creating more leaders in the company, so we are more versatile and less dependent on the one person at the top.”
There were people who could not adapt and turnover was very high in the first couple of years, she admits. “We kept pushing our proposals. ‘What do you think? How do you feel about this?’ Everyone had to contribute. If you come into a meeting and don’t intend to contribute, we’re bold enough to say, ‘Don’t waste your time’. Yes, you move fast when you are alone but you cannot move far. We want togetherness.”
Being able to work together, remotely, saved the day during the pandemic. Like everyone else, Too was blindsided by Covid. But she had seen how some shops in downtown Kuala Lumpur malls were forced to close during the 2017 Bersih demonstrations. That triggered the issue of crisis management and how they could continue to operate if the safety of staff and customers was endangered.
Shiseido Malaysia had just begun working on remote access to its products then and Too galvanised everyone to step things up. Her vision was not aligned with the HQ, which was focused more on the domestic business. “Maybe the speed and aggression were just different,” she says on hindsight.
Undeterred, “we went ahead on our own accord and made ourselves accountable for our actions because I refused to wait. We were somewhat late in starting, but in time to march forward when Covid struck. We launched our online store in April 2021.”
Even before the pandemic, people had begun to notice the change in the company, she adds. Comments like “Waah, Shiseido can be so strong, so pretty” boosted team confidence. “We even began attracting talent from our competitors.”
Does being a woman helming a beauty business help? “I’m not sure. I think the brand itself is many notches above others in the market. We only need to be loud at the local management level and make the products walk faster and harder so people take notice. But what you envisage the company to be and where you want the brand to stand in the marketplace — many will agree there was a very strong and aggressive push within the company to make it happen.”
Personal interest and relevance do have a bearing. “If you are really into the business and can connect to it and the people, there is a distinct difference. You’re more intrigued, more curious because you use the products daily. I’m excited at every product launch; I immediately apply, smell and feel the textures.”
Was she too aggressive for the conservative men she had to deal with in Japan?
“Yes, comments were passed but they were very discreet. Japanese men are very modest but that does not mean they’re not opinionated. At meetings, they notice which Japanese you can speak better to or are more harmonious with. After the meeting, you find that person, a little bee, next to you.”
Joining Shiseido after years in another beauty company known for being bold felt like a 180° change for her. “It was very difficult because suddenly you had to shift gears, go slower and talk slower to everybody. I had a Japanese male MD. He would tell me softly, ‘No this is too fast. You have many ideas, slow down’. Ah, okay.”
Admittedly aggressive by nature, Too has had to adapt as well, without giving ground on her ideas. “I persevered very strongly. When I believed in something, I got everybody together. And if they believed in it too, let’s move fast. If you move slowly, there’s no impact. We want to roll with a big hit to announce that we have arrived.”
Having broken the mould and shaped a new one she has become comfortable with, Too is all set to step down and out shortly. But why?
“I think the past two years have been too consuming. It feels like you’ve been robbed of your time and energy. You had to double the effort, you lost sleep, your appetite, and you could not differentiate between day and night. Everything is just so jumbled up.
“In retail, we sell one lipstick for less than RM100. We have to generate sales by the millions a month. No joke; you have sleepless nights and palpitations just thinking about the numbers.
“I count my blessings that after the chaos of Covid, we are still healthy, walking and alive — we saw many people drop. Honestly, I’m pretty tired. A lot has been done in the last six years. I don’t deny a lot more can and needs to be done to elevate Shiseido higher.
“But I’ve come to a point where the body doesn’t follow the heart; the heart and mind are not aligned. I think a break is well deserved. I want to slow down, breathe slower and better.”
Early retirement will also mean more time for her grown daughters and six cats. “Beauty is No 1 for me and takes a lot of time and effort. I don’t watch TV, YouTube or K-dramas. I listen to the news to catch up with what’s happening in the world. Anything that helps me to look clever and beautiful, I will do lah.
“Not only do I take care of my face, I cook to make sure I eat out less, and I exercise. It’s the total package under the umbrella of vanity and good health. You have to prioritise and concentrate or, suddenly, you haven’t eaten early and it’s time to do your leg yoga. You have to be so structured. That’s why I need to slow down.”
[Disclaimer: Elaine Too has since retired from her post as managing director of Shiseido Malaysia]
This article first appeared on June 27, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.