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Walking the Talk
‘Guard Our Future:’ Kao's Vision to Balance Business with Solutions to Social Issues

Kao’s Guard Our Future project aims to greatly reduce transmission of dengue fever by focusing on three main areas: community activities, raising awareness among the next generation, and dengue fever forecasting.

Approximately one million people die annually worldwide from mosquito-borne infectious diseases. In Southeast Asia, in particular, the spread of dengue fever — which is transmitted mainly by yellow-fever mosquitoes — remains a social issue. To solve this problem, Kao Corporation launched its Guard Our Future project — centered on an innovative concept of a product that keeps mosquitoes away from people's skin — globally to protect future lives from mosquitoes. According to Mitsutoshi Kamiya, VP of Health & Beauty Care Asia (International) Business at Kao Corporation, the goal of the project is to develop a new model to balance both business activities and activities to solve social issues, in order to achieve Kao's mission to "create a Kirei life for all — providing care and enrichment for the life of all people and the planet."

In pursuit of its mission, Kao promotes its mid-term plan with the vision of "Protecting future lives — sustainability as the only path" along with its "Kirei Lifestyle Plan" ESG strategy, formulated in 2019.

At Sustainable Brands 2022 Yokohama, Kao President and CEO Yoshihiro Hasebe used gears to illustrate the idea of a "society that has both development and circularity.” He declared that by identifying the relationship between seemingly separate social issues and utilizing innovative technologies, “we aim to build a business model that is appealing to many partners and will invite collaboration. Kao will strive to be the gear that connects them; and by linking multiple social issues and business models, we aim to realize a 'society that circulates while developing' — where business development and the resolution of social issues are self-sustaining."

One new business model where Kao could serve as a "gear" is the Guard Our Future project.

Dengue fever threatens areas home to half the world’s population

Mosquitoes are the deadliest creatures on the planet; and according to 2022 data from the German online platform Statista, one million people die annually from mosquito-borne infectious diseases. Although most of these people are on the continent of Africa, people in Southeast Asia also suffer mosquito bites and are exposed to the risk of mosquito-borne infectious diseases such as dengue fever on a daily basis. Most of those infected are children.

Mosquitoes themselves are not significantly affected by the virus, but they can transmit it to humans through their bite. Mosquitoes that transmit dengue fever are vulnerable to cold weather; but their habitat is expanding due in part to global warming. Since they can multiply in small amounts of unclean water, such as water pooled in garbage on the street, there is a growing concern that the infection could further spread in areas undergoing economic development and urbanization. As of 2018, the World Health Organization and UNICEF have found that in the future, 3.9 billion people in 128 countries, which are home to approximately half of the world's population, will be at risk of contracting dengue fever.

The sale of repellent alone will not reduce infection

Kao's Bioré brand offers a lineup of products that protects skin from a variety of environmental stress factors, based on the idea that the skin is the interface between people and society. Bioré Guard Mos Block Serum is a mosquito repellent based on a repellent technology that makes the skin surface repulsive to mosquitoes causing them to fly away before biting it; the goal is not to kill mosquitoes, but to reduce the infection caused by mosquitoes by protecting the skin. This product is representative of Kao's commitment to solving social issues according to its vision to protect future lives.

The Guard Our Future project was launched in February 2022 by donating approximately 20 million yen worth of Bioré Guard Mos Block Serum to the Thai Ministry of Public Health. Then, in June 2022, Kao began selling the same product in Thailand. However, Kamiya emphasizes that providing Bioré Guard Mos Block Serum itself will not reduce dengue fever. It is impossible to prevent infection unless people play an active role in protecting their own health (avoid mosquito bites); so, it is necessary to transform people's mindsets.

Mosquito repellents that are commonly used today have odors that repel mosquitoes or use DEET — a volatile, chemical repellent. Since such ingredients may have an unpleasant smell or texture, Thai people — especially children — are not in the habit of using mosquito repellents on a daily basis. To prevent transmission of dengue fever, there’s a need to continue to communicate the importance of protecting ourselves from mosquito bites. Therefore, in conjunction with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Dengue Day on June 15 — which was established with the aim of eliminating dengue fever from ASEAN — Kao holds educational events in Thailand with the participation of the Thai Ministry of Public Health and the local affiliate of Takeda Pharmaceutical Company (Takeda Thailand) since 2022.

Special program class at Phyathai School, Bangkok, September 2022

The project focuses on three main areas: community activities, raising awareness among the next generation, and dengue fever forecasting. Community activities include working with the industrial park association in the area home to the Kao plant, and with local residents to remove puddles where mosquitoes lay eggs and abandoned garbage where puddles are likely to form.

To educate the next generation, project members visit schools to hold classes about dengue fever and look for places where mosquitoes could be present on the school premises with children, in collaboration with Takeda Thailand and local distributors. Another initiative is called dengue fever forecasting, which aims to protect lives from dengue fever by providing information. The team is working on developing capabilities for RooTan — an app run by NECTEC, an affiliate of the Thailand National Science and Technology Development Agency — to provide extensive information on this infectious disease. The map on this app shows the real-time number of dengue fever cases in each region, which is color-coded. In the future, they will add a feature to project how many more cases are expected in each region.

Instilling the mission of protecting future lives among employees of Kao Thailand

The Guard Our Future project would not have developed to become a public-private-academic initiative without the understanding and actions of local employees in Thailand.

Kamiya, who has been at Kao Thailand as the head of marketing since 2021, was the driving force behind the launch and promotion of this project. In launching the world's first Bioré Guard Mos Block Serum, he did not take the conventional approach of simply advertising and distributing the product. The core products of the Thai business are detergents, and hygiene and home-care products; and the local employees focus on sales strategies for detergents.

"In Japan, it is easier to gain an understanding of the sustainable value of projects. However, since Kao is a small company and brand outside Japan, we often struggled getting our messages across," Kamiya says. Moreover, the early days of the project were in the middle of the pandemic and communicating with the team while remote working was often a challenge. However, he carefully explained that the purpose of this project was to realize the Kao Group's vision of protecting future lives, the social significance of promoting the initiatives, and his own passion for the Guard Our Future project.

His enthusiasm came across to local employees, who reached out to doctors of the Ministry of Public Health to explain Kao's mosquito-repellent technology. The key stakeholders of the Ministry related to and highly regarded Kao's philosophy and technology, which led to their collaboration.

In Thailand, Kao’s collaborative initiatives with the Ministry of Public Health and Mahidol University have earned them the trust and collaboration from numerous companies. One company purchased the product for employees at its factory in Thailand and to donate to local elementary schools.

"The Japanese Embassy in Thailand also related to the idea of solving the social issues of ASEAN with Japanese technology and helped us in many ways. Many people are relating to and joining our initiative," Kamiya says.

After launching in Thailand, Kao plans to expand the Guard Our Future project to other countries with a large number of infection cases, especially in ASEAN.

A business model that balances business and solutions to social issues

Kamiya hopes to establish a self-sustaining model for sustainability to fund support for areas with a high number of dengue fever cases lacking effective countermeasures by widely distributing Bioré Guard Mos Block Serum.

"Sustainability initiatives are often scaled back or canceled if the core business is not performing well. We need a system that can properly run on its own so that we won't ever have to put a stop to this initiative," he says.

Two years into the initiative, he says Kao still has a long way to go — as they have implemented the initiatives only in Thailand and have yet to progress enough to reduce the number of dengue fever cases and transform people’s mindsets. Not yet satisfied with the progress, Kamiya says, "I feel that there are more people we could have saved. I want to further increase sales to obtain the capital for sustainability initiatives as soon as possible."

The immediate goal is to expand the initiatives to other Asian countries as quickly as possible; Kamiya says they are discussing plans to further promote our initiatives by utilizing Japanese companies' technologies with their partner, Takeda Pharmaceuticals. At the same time, it is also important to make the Guard Our Future project known in Japan.

Indeed, a system that expands the community of project participants is a society that circulates while developing, which Hasebe aims to achieve.

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