Yakult: Success with “Yakult Ladies”

Yakult has built unique operating model with female salesforce called “Yakult Ladies”. Its operating model is effective from wealthy neighborhood in developed countries to slum in developing countries.

Yakult built an effective operating model with its female salesforce called “Yakult Ladies”. The operating model is well aligned with its business model and creates competitive advantage for the company.


What is Yakult?

Yakult is a leading Japanese probiotic beverage company, and is also the name of its core beverage product. Since its first production in 1935 based on the research by Dr. Minoru Shirota, the founder of the company, its operation has expanded globally. As of March 2015, Yakult operates in 33 countries and earns annual revenue of $3 billion with sales volume per day exceeding 30 million.


Business Model

Yakult’s business model is producing healthy probiotic beverages with investment in R&D and selling them to local households all over the world. The value Yakult provides to customers is shown in the following company’s principle called “Shirota-ism”:

  • Preventive medicine
  • A price anyone can afford
  • A healthy intestinal tract leads to a longer life.


Effective operating model with Yakult Ladies

Yakult’s success over 80 years can be attributed to the alignment of its business model and unique operating model based on its female salesforce “Yakult Ladies”. There are 80,000 Yakult Ladies all over the world, including 40,000 in Japan. The roles of Yakult Ladies in its operating model are summarized as follows:

Creating trust in Yakult among customers

Since its inception, it was among the biggest challenge for Yakult to convince customers to believe in the value of its beverages. People had negative image when they first learned about Yakult as a beverage which contains bacteria. Therefore, it was critical for Yakult to create conversation with customers so that they believed that the bacteria in Yakult had actually positive impact on their health and worth paying extra money to have that benefit.

In order to capture the value of its product, Yakult built home delivery sales channel and deployed Yakult Ladies for the channel. Yakult hired local women as Yakult Ladies who could understand local culture, communicate well with local house holds, and also keep schedules. Their communication ability was essential for Yakult’s operating model because Yakult Ladies had to explain well to customers about the healthy benefit of Yakult. Customers trusted Yakult Ladies because these sales ladies were from their regions, frequently visited customers, and were able to talk about not only their business, but also issues related to local communities.

Today, the customer base of Yakult ranges from the rich in developed countries to the poor living in the slum in developing countries. Yakult Ladies are effective, especially to the latter customer segment. These customers learn about the value of probiotic beverage not from school or media, but from Yakult Ladies. In addition, the customers in poor neighborhoods trust local Yakult Ladies because they have strong ties with people from their communities.

The trust Yakult Ladies gain from customers is important not only for selling products, but also creating barriers for entry. Even if other companies succeeded in producing similar probiotic beverages, it is hard for them to win customers’ trust over Yakult once Yakult establishes the sales channel in a region with local Yakult Ladies.


Shifting fixed cost to variable cost

Yakult Ladies are paid on commission. Also, with home delivery channel, there is less need for capital investments to market its products. Therefore, in this operating model, Yakult essentially converted some of fixed cost to variable cost. Having flexible cost structure is important especially for entering into new markets. It takes time for Yakult to hire and train its salesforce, raise awareness among customers about the healthy benefit of its product, and scale up the business. The cost structure of the sales channel with Yakult Ladies is well designed for lowering the cost of new market entry and also sustaining the business until it becomes profitable.


The operating model with Yakult Ladies might seem old fashioned in the age of digital marketing. However, Yakult Ladies continue to be essential for Yakult’s business. Yakult’s success over decades makes it a good example of how creative operating model can contribute to the sustainable competitive advantage of a company.












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Student comments on Yakult: Success with “Yakult Ladies”

  1. Haha this is awesome. I love Yakult and Yakult ladies is ingenious!

  2. Really interesting! I’d never heard of Yakult before – do you think the fact that they have an all female salesforce is important? Are there cultural reasons why women would be more effective in this type of operating model than men?

    1. Thank you for your comment! I think a part of reason for the effectiveness of female salesforce would be that women on average care more about the health condition of their family, so female salesforce can more easily connect to the concern of house wives who make purchase decisions for this kind of product.

  3. Dai, very interesting write-up. I remember yakult as a kid in Mexico and never knowing it was healthy! As you pointed out, I like how they leverage variable costs and relationships to create deep footholds in markets where their salesforce can be successful. I think I envisioned this as working better in rural areas than urban ones, but you said Japan has 40,000 yakult ladies…I assume they’re effective? Is yakult well dispersed globally or have they focused on developed countries?

    1. Thanks for your comment! At least in Japan, Yakult Ladies are regarded as the symbol of Yakult and function as the key differentiating factor from their competitors. Yakult’s business is globally dispersed, and their business model is considered one of the early success case for marketing BOP consumers in developing countries.

  4. Really well-constructed Daisuke!

    You mentioned the Yakult Ladies approach as raising the barrier to entry for competitors, but can we maybe look at things from another perspective? If one of the main issues for lower-end consumers is education about the product, could Yakult Ladies be doing the education work for other competitors who can now use more traditional distribution channels for more cost-effective delivery methods? Do you find that the trust factor (which Yakult Ladies definitely have as an advantage) can influence purchasing decisions for this category of product?

    I ask this question because my sister is adopting a slightly similar approach marketing a new skin care product in Jordan, and I am looking to help her optimize her go-to-market strategy! Will she basically end up doing all the education work for competitors, or will she build a trustworthiness advantage over the inevitable competition?


    1. Thanks for your comment! Your point is very interesting, and it might be true that Yakult is doing the education for other competitors, too. I don’t know how it works outside of Japan, but there are plenty of similar products which look and taste like Yakult in Japan. However, people continue buying Yakult! I think the trust has significant influence for the purchase decisions because people cannot actually see how the bacteria is working in their digestion system. In the case of skin care product, this might be different. People can see the effect by themselves, and easily understand whether similar but cheaper products are as effective as the product your sister is trying to sell.

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