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Innovation lessons from Fujifilm's makeover

Posting in Food

Fujifilm, the Japanese company whose name harkens to the pre-digital era of photography, has been turning heads lately. Not side to side in a "no" gesture, as if in pity for a corporation that might seem on the path to extinction. Fujifilm famously found a way to anticipate the death of old-school cameras and has been remaking itself by diversifying into new businesses. Perhaps its most dramatic remake has been in the area of skincare.

Yes, skincare. Reports published in such heavyweight business periodicals as The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times (note: registration is required to read the FT.com link) over the last couple of years have highlighted Fujifilm's bright idea to branch out away film to stay relevant. But only recently has Fujifilm's investment in the beauty business -- with a line of cleansing oils, anti-aging jellies, and other products marketed under the name of Astalift -- been covered with much detail. The slick business and culture magazine Monocle offers a thorough profile of Astalift's origins and current state. Here are some highlights, which offer lessons for other corporations looking for a dramatic makeover:

- "We knew we couldn't survive just by shrinking the business," says Yojiro Yamashita, general manager of Fujifilm's Life Sciences group, which applied its knowledge of stopping the "aging" process of celluloid film to stopping the aging process in human skin. In other words, when it started to look like Fujifilm was threatened with obsolescence, the company actually expanded investment in new directions.

- The company took a "low-risk approach," as Monocle writer Fiona Wilson observes, by launching Astalift by mail order only in 2007. Fujifilm tested customer demand before investing in stores (in Japan) or a department store presence (in European countries) and related heavy marketing efforts. Three years after Astalift's launch, the line saw more than $125 million a year in sales.

- Fujifilm's PR strategy is to refer to the "culture of film" in some of its campaigns for Astalift, to keep it loosely, but wisely, connected to the history of the brand. For instance, commercials and YouTube videos for Astalift are quite cinematic and beautifully shot.

- The company took stock of its R&D assets -- it had a library of 200,000 chemical compounds and 4,000 antioxidant samples -- and looked for an appropriate product line where this could be relevant (in this case, skin care).

- Fujifilm isn't the only Japanese firm that was originally outside the beauty business but which now finds itself in it. Suntory, a beverage maker; Nicherei, a frozen-food giant; and Nihonsakari, a sake company all have skincare operations as well, based on their previous research.

Obviously, not every company can launch new skincare products based on existing lab findings. But the way that Fujifilm has developed Astalift -- and particularly how it has marketed the story of that brand -- offers a striking example of a corporation coping beautifully when faced with a dying industry.

Image: YouTube still from Astalift Spain's Channel

— By on February 18, 2013, 7:45 PM PST

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure