3 Lessons from Teruo Kise: Former Chairman of TOTO
At the height of the pandemic’s toilet-paper-hoarding days, those with a TOTO bidet enjoyed a moment of self-congratulations—while those without seriously considered a TOTO purchase.
But global TOTO appreciation dates farther back than that. In 2015, the New York Times ran the piece, “The Cult of the Toto Toilet.” And in 2019, Bon Appétit reported TOTO bidets were becoming a status symbol for upscale restaurants.
In Japan, smart toilets are a commonplace luxury that most citizens expect as the default standard with “more than 80% of households of two or more members [having] bidet seats on their toilets,” reported Nikkei Asia in May 2020.
However, prior to TOTO’s bidet “washlet” that launched in 1980 in Japan, bidets were primarily a Western novelty. Therefore, marketing a concept with little prior history in Japan was always going to be a challenge.
But, by 1986, TOTO’s distribution of washlets overseas had already begun. And 1987 marked 1 million washlets sold.
One of the figures attributed to making TOTO a globally recognized brand was Teruo Kise 木瀬照雄 (1947–). Kise began his career at TOTO in 1970 in their sales department and became the company’s president (2009–2014) after holding positions as TOTO’s director of marketing and director of sales.
Based on interviews with Kise, here is what TOTO’s former chairman believed were the philosophies and key strategies that helped create the devotion that TOTO inspires today.
Lesson 1. Hone your interest in people.
When Kise first started out at TOTO, he reportedly bemoaned his assignment to sales. In an interview with President magazine, Kise noted that he hated talking with people during his younger years.
He attributes his subsequent success in sales to his voracious novel reading. “Now I love meeting and talking to people. I think this is not unrelated to the fact that I have read many novels, including those by Teru Miyamoto. I think my interest in people grew as I resonated with the way of life of the characters in his novels and felt that they were different from me.”
Reading Miyamoto’s novels during his 1-hour train ride to work made Kise think deeply about the human condition, and his incessant reading helped him see things from many points of view.
“When innovating a business or thinking about a corporate philosophy, look at things backwards from the future, from the point of view of ‘how we want things to be,’” Kise said.
“In order to do this, it is necessary to understand the universal thoughts and subtleties of the human mind, and I think that the accumulation of information gained by reading novels cannot be ignored.”
In this same interview, Kise suggests that if one can think about what the product exists for in the first place, that thinking will lead to more possibilities in the future.
Taking the pencil as an example, pencils exist for the purpose of writing. A purpose which led to the birth of word processors and computer terminals that have completely different functions from conventional pencils. A product’s purpose will foreshadow future products.
Lesson 2. Always look for new markets.
In 1979, about a year prior to the release of TOTO’s washlet, Kise was made manager of a branch office responsible for sales to major housing manufacturers.
Using the phone book as a guide, Kise visited all the plumbers and construction companies in his area, one by one, to ask for their cooperation.
Based on the prompt of a plumbing contractor’s wife, Kise began funding showrooms where customers could touch TOTO products, allowing sales teams to interact with customers directly. This move paved the way for the crowd-drawing appeal the washlet received in showrooms.
During this time in his career, Kise developed and targeted the remodeling market as an exciting prospect for TOTO over that of newly constructed homes.
Tapping into the remodeling market allowed sales teams to approach customers with the idea of replacing their existing washlet with a newly improved TOTO model. Kise believed that everyone had the innate desire to make their life at home ever more comfortable, which proved correct.
Additionally, Kise developed what he called the “wife strategy.” He installed the bidet in the homes and offices of plumbers and told them, “After 3 days of use, you won’t be able to stop using it.”
TOTO’s sales were further boosted when, in 1981, TOTO released a TV CM which helped convey the value of the product to untapped audiences.
The commercial shows Jun Togawa, a well-known Japanese celebrity, with blue paint on her hands, trying to get her hands clean with a napkin—to no success—implying the need for washing to achieve the highest level of cleanliness.
The CM ends with the line「おしりだって洗ってほしい 」approximately translated to “Your bottom wants to be washed, too!”
Lesson 3. “The starting point of everything is the customer.”
In Nikkei’s 29-part “My Resume” column featuring Teruo Kise, Kise says, “When the starting point of everything is the customer, it naturally becomes clear what is the right way to make things. Putting the customer first eliminates the self-satisfaction of the creator.”
In the Nikkei series, Kise relates how TOTO’s R&D relied heavily on customer feedback from showrooms and remodel stores, as well as in-depth and consistent conversations with plumbers and construction workers, allowing TOTO to hear latent needs.
Working closely with remodelers, they also set up a system so that customers and partners could point out improvements to TOTO products.
For instance, TOTO’s bestselling Karari floor 「カラリ床」a type of self-drying bathroom tiling, was further improved by a comment from a woman who felt pain when she knelt on the floor. This observation led to adding heating to the product.
“[Great products] lead to customer satisfaction,” says Kise, “which leads customers to seek for more satisfaction.”
This obsession with providing customers with an ever-improving product is visible on the TOTO global site, where one is introduced to 8 types of cleansing spray patterns.
Furthermore, there’s the heated seat, the soft sounds of a mountain stream for bashful toilet users, mood lighting, automatic toilet lid open and shut function, auto flush, deodorizer, to list just a few.
"If TOTO disappeared from the world, would customers and society be troubled?” Kise says he pondered this question as he wrote each installment of the Nikkei series featuring his life.
Perhaps this question is best answered by proposing that if one were to imagine the best toilet experience possible—that fantasy would likely resemble TOTO’s washlet.
The Cult of the TOTO Toilet, The New York Times
How the Toto Toilet Took America by a Quiet Storm, Bon Appétit
29-part “My Resume” column featuring Teruo Kise, Nikkei.com
Smart Toilets Arrive in U.S., The Wall Street Journal
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