The company that cares about your intestine

Yakult defines their corporate mission uniquely: they want to solve all your intestinal needs. They really, really care about your intestines.

Back in 1935 their founder Dr. Minoru Shirota invented the lactobacillus in the distinctive fermented milk drink inside those ubiquitous little white plastic bottles you see everywhere in Japan. The whitish liquid scoots past your stomach’s defenses to head straight for the intestines where it can bestow its life-enhancing powers, which include stimulating the intestines, promoting bowel movements, and preventing the growth of unhealthy bacteria down there and the nasty intestinal putrefaction which can result.

The company raises Shirota’s ideas to the level of a pseudo-religion (“Shirota-ism”), and identifies as one of its defining values the notion that a healthy intestinal tract leads to a long life.

Where else can a focus on the gut take you as a business? Drugs, for one thing. Japan has one of the highest rates of stomach and intestinal cancer in the world, believed to stem from all the salted pickles and fish the people eat. Although Yakult’s eponymous drink itself has been shown to be effective in preventing cancer, Yakult also has an active pharmaceutical business. It already has the stomach cancer fighter “Campto” on the market, and just got approval for Oxaliplatin, part of a drug cocktail to treat colorectal cancer.

A bit further afield, under the rubric of “what’s good for your intestine might be good for your skin as well”, Yakult is bringing its expertise in biochemistry to the cosmetics business. The inspiration for this business, it is said, arose from the remarkably lustrous skin tone of the women whose job it was to wash Yakult bottles for re-use (way back when, before they went to the current plastic bottles).

Yakult is also researching mozuku, a particularly repulsive slimy type of seaweed. Turns out, the chemical that makes it slimy also prevents stomach ulcers.

The company still has its armies of “Yakult lady” salespeople, bringing intestinal health directly to your doorstep (although they’re now equipped with PDAs).

And like any other self-respecting Japanese company, Yakult has its own baseball team, the Yakult Swallows, although I wasn’t able to figure out the intestinal connection here.

In this day and age of ever greater specialization and segmentation, defining your business in terms of body parts may become a major trend. What will be next?

3 Responses to “The company that cares about your intestine”

  1. Hokai Says:

    Great comment as always, Bob. “Yakult” though is simply Yoghurt (or Yogurt from Turkish) misspelled in a typical “kana back to romaji” manner. Anyway, see here a nice entry on Yogurt, giving also names of some commonly used bacteria. Another curious connection: Turkish language, apparently, has some very profound similarities to Japanese!

  2. Vincent Henderson Says:

    More gold marketing fodder for Yakult in Science Daily.

    It’s one thing to care about intestines, but solving bad breath is surely among the nobler aims of consumer marketing.

  3. Carmina Teall Says:

    A stomach ulcer can be extremely painful. They generally develop when the membrane that lines the digestive system erodes. This can be due to a range of causes and factors. Before the development of antibiotic treatment, stomach ulcers were life-threatening conditions. The only life-saving treatment available was for large sections of the digestive tract to be removed. Failure to do this would mean the person with the ulcer may die from a haemorrhage.^

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