01 Dec 2009

Taking the Plunge

An Innovative Bidet-Toilet Comes to America
Re: Mary Tripsas (MBA 1987); Mako Egawa (MBA 1986); Jun Fukuyoshi (MBA 2008)
by Julia Hanna


It’s installed in 63 percent of all Japanese homes but rarely found in the United States: a combination bidet-toilet with an electronic control panel offering various water cleansing settings and a dryer button to complete the experience. The Japanese company TOTO, founded in 1917, introduced flush toilets at a time when most of the country lacked a sewage system. Today, it produces the world’s leader in the bidet-toilet category. While it has enjoyed considerable success with the high-end, traditional model toilets it introduced to the U.S. market in 1989, the Washlet, as the bidet-toilet is known, has been a much tougher sell.

In “TOTO: The Bottom Line,” HBS associate professor Mary Tripsas considers barriers to entry TOTO faces in its quest to make the Washlet a must-have in American bathrooms. Taught in the second-year course Leading Innovative Ventures, the case was coauthored with Masako Egawa (MBA ’86), former executive director of the Japan Research Center, and former research associate Jun Fukuyoshi (MBA ’08). “The subject has a nice duality to it,” Tripsas observes. “It took around fifteen years for the Washlet to take off in Japan, so you can argue that the same will be true in the United States, where it was introduced about ten years ago. On the one hand, it makes sense to persevere. On the other hand, why bother? TOTO is already profitable here with its traditional toilets, and they’re innovative in so many other areas, like special antibacterial glazes and low water consumption. Do they really need to pursue a strategy for the Washlet?”

TOTO faces a few hurdles, notes Tripsas. The first and perhaps most obvious is the change in behavior required for Americans to wash with water after using the toilet. Another is a change in beliefs — Americans do not view toilets as a consumer electronic. Finally, American homes aren’t built with electrical outlets next to the toilet, a necessity for the Washlet. It’s also a high-end item: The Washlet is purchased as a separate attachable seat that fits on a standard toilet for approximately $800, depending on the model, or as an integrated toilet bowl and seat (branded as the Neorest) for anywhere from $3,800 to $5,000.

Classroom discussion was mixed, Tripsas reports, but the students who favored pursuing a strategy for the Washlet were “gung ho” and suggested a variety of tactics. Students liked TOTO’s “Clean is Happy” advertising campaign but generally agreed that the company needs to start by simply getting as many people to try the product as possible. Some suggested installing Washlets in swanky department stores, restaurants, and offices. (Visitors to HBS can try out a Washlet in Aldrich Hall, courtesy of TOTO.)

“TOTO” is the final case in Leading Innovative Ventures; Tripsas notes that it brings together the two halves of the course by encompassing the market side of how a firm gets an innovation adopted as well as inward-facing company concerns such as launching innovative products while managing an existing core business.

“The second half of the course focuses in part on how a company’s identity can serve as a source of inertia,” Tripsas says. “By definition, identity is a stable, who-we-are kind of thing. But sometimes innovation requires firms to change how they think of themselves.” For TOTO, she continues, this boils down to whether the company should consider itself an organization where the Washlet is at the core of who it is, or one where a broader sense of innovation defines its identity.

“It’s an interesting question to debate,” remarks Tripsas, who expects to teach the case again in the spring. For now, TOTO is continuing its efforts to popularize the Washlet in the United States, even as it pursues other areas of growth. Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Lopez, and Brad Pitt own Washlets. Can the rest of us be far behind?

— Julia Hanna


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