Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

Granola Boom Proves Japan's Working Women Are Good for Business

  • Calbee’s sales of the time-saving breakfast food jumped
  • Woman who led marketing campaign targeted mothers like her

Calbee Inc.’s granola snack had been around for 20 years, with no real change to its recipe or sales. Then a female marketing executive turned things around by pitching the cereal as a time-saver for a growing class of Japanese consumers just like her: working mothers.

The strategy clicked, revenue jumped and so did the snack maker’s stock price. Success coincided with a push by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to boost women in the workforce. More companies like Calbee, whose Chairman Akira Matsumoto is a vocal advocate of diversity, are starting to see working moms as a lucrative niche in a domestic market that’s shrinking overall.

“Some companies have woken up to the fact that the vast majority of their customers were women and perhaps having women involved in planning might be a way to increase revenue,” said Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

Since 2012, when Abe came to office promising to eliminate waiting lists for childcare and boost the number of female managers, more Japanese women in their 20s and 30s are deciding not to quit their jobs when they have kids. The labor force participation rate for women in those age groups rose to an average of 70 percent last year, almost 10 percentage points above the number a decade ago.

Even with that, female managers are still relatively rare in Japan. Of the 2,161 listed Japanese companies that provided the information, less than a third have even a single woman on their board, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report, which tracks disparities between the sexes, ranks Japan 111th out of the 144 countries it follows. Iceland has the most equal society, according to the report.

Yumiko Aboshi

Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

One Japanese mother who decided to stay at work is Yumiko Aboshi, the now 42-year-old manager credited with breathing life into Calbee’s granola and who’s become something of a minor media star. One headline in a local language news website in June called her: “The woman who knows the consumer best.”

After taking a year of maternity leave in 2011, Aboshi says she returned to work to find the cereal division in a near panic over tough new revenue goals handed down by headquarters. Granola sales, which had hardly budged for years, were now somehow supposed to triple to about $100 million. Two years later the target was doubled.

“When the second target came, we were like, ‘what?”’ Aboshi recalled in an interview this month at Calbee’s Tokyo headquarters. “Even $100 million felt like a wall to get over.”

Granola was seen by Japanese consumers as a sweet snack, not a health food as it’s often viewed in the U.S. and Europe. The cereal, which combines roasted grains with dry fruits, is sold by Calbee under the brand name Frugra, a shortened word for fruits granola.

Aboshi’s team led a marketing campaign, recasting the cereal as a time-saving breakfast that’s also nutritious. They got the attention of working moms -- and the Japanese media -- by holding supermarket tastings and offering free breakfasts to commuters in Tokyo’s financial district.

Calbee’s Frugra

Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

With that push, sales jumped seven-fold over five years to the equivalent of about $266 million in the 12 months through March. Now the cereal contributes more than one-tenth of total revenue, a big chunk for a company best known for potato chips. In the past year, Calbee announced almost $100 million of investments in two new granola factories, partly to supply shipments to China, where it’s also becoming popular.

“Granola sales really shot up about three years ago,” said Masashi Mori, a Tokyo-based analyst at Credit Suisse Group AG. “As more and more moms continue to work, they want to be able to give their kids a meal that’s healthier and simpler.”

One recent reviewer on Amazon.com’s Japan’s website, where Frugra is the best-selling cereal, said: “It’s inexpensive and, mixed with milk or yogurt, I have it as a breakfast substitute when I’m short on time.”

Calbee hasn’t been immune to problems, though. The stock plunged 11 percent in a single day earlier this month as earnings took a hit following a potato shortage that halted shipments of some snacks this past spring. Even after the pullback, though, the company’s shares have almost tripled in the past five years.

Other companies are also focusing on labor-saving products for working women. Japan’s biggest convenience store operator, Seven & i Holdings Co., will start a food delivery service in November offering meal kits that take less than 10 minutes to prepare. Self-operating vacuum cleaners, like iRobot Corp.’s Roomba, are one of the only growing segments in a vacuum market that’s shrinking overall, according to researcher GfK Global.

The focus on meeting the needs of women customers is coming as more companies step up efforts to increase the number of female employees. Matsumoto, who is also Calbee’s chief executive officer, has probably been the most outspoken Japanese executive advocating workplace diversity. “If you don’t like diversity, ‘You’re welcome to quit,”’ he told a forum earlier this year.

In Calbee’s granola division, where women make up half of the members including Aboshi’s boss, the benefits of diversity are showing.

“If the team had been dominated by men,” Aboshi said, “it’s possible none of this might have happened.”

— With assistance by James Mayger

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