Powerful storytelling has helped SK-II build its brand into a global powerhouse and helped it stand out in a hyper-competitive landscape. Gayoon Jung, VP of brand and innovation for SK-II Global, speaks to WARC’s Gabey Goh for the Marketer’s Toolkit 2022 about how everything begins with the consumer, the need to constantly innovate on engagement and taking the long-term view.

Toolkit 2022

This interview is part of WARC's Marketer's Toolkit 2022. Read more.

Key insights:

  • The pandemic has raised the bar for brands in how stories need to be told and meeting the expectations of consumers.
  • While quantitative metrics are important, marketers should not focus purely on numbers but also look at the qualitative change that impacts brand perception.
  • Brands need to resist the temptation of the short-term sell and focus on what matters to consumers.
How have your marketing strategies and objectives adapted to this ongoing state of volatility that we’re still operating under since 2020?

For the skincare industry, there’s traditionally a lot of the interaction and engagement with the consumer that’s very tactile in nature – what you can see, touch and feel. And that was really a critical part of how we build our ecosystem for the brand.

With the pandemic and as we come out from it, we've been working on how we can change those interactions and transform it in meaningful, fresh and engaging ways. So the way that we look at innovation in SK-II, we don't just think of this as launching new products. It's more about how we innovate to connect with consumers in a better way. And we feel that's far more important than just launching a new product.

What is true innovation for consumers and how do we really innovate experience and how to help the consumer? Consumers are always a starting point for us and we have innovated a lot in terms of the way we interact with our consumers.

One example is the way we meet consumers with our skincare counselling. We’re really going into more of online counselling with our beauty counsellors and consultants in our stores – still being able to really answer consumers’ questions that they have on skincare and products but turning that into e-counselling.

We also developed our digital brand ambassador. She has a name, YUMI, and she answers consumer questions online and this can happen 24/7 with her AI superpower.

Gayoon Jung, VP of brand and innovation, SK-II Global

Are you seeing any evidence that COVID has changed customer perceptions or sensitivities around advertising, and have you had to change your communication tone and style in some way to cater to that?

Thanks to the pandemic, there's a higher bar now for the brand’s storytelling. It's also my belief that it's the job of us marketers to really create those stories, and then tell those stories in a meaningful way. And that's always been the core task for us who are building brands and connecting with consumers.

A lot of consumers, especially the younger consumers and the Gen Z, they value this. They are looking for meaning and authenticity, when they are choosing brands and choosing to connect with brands.

For us at SK-II, it boils down to first what you would tell as a brand, what is that story and then secondly, how you would connect and tell this story.

So, to elaborate a little bit more in the “what and the how” aspect. “What” is really our purpose and there's a higher level of social consciousness among the consumers, especially more so in the younger generation. They also have higher expectations on brands and businesses; what story they tell and then what action they really take to make that impact in society. And increased expectations on authenticity too – are you really doing that and walking the talk or is it just a marketing act?

Our purpose and our reason to exist as a brand is to “Change Destiny for Skin, Life and Planet”, and that's the simple but powerful phrase that makes us SK-II. We believe in inspiring women to overcome the limitations that they have set on themselves, or from society, wherever it's coming from, be it, skin or life. The key phrase here is: “Destiny is not a matter of chance. It's a matter of choice.” Be it on your skin and be it on your life and on the planet.

What's interesting is when we talk to women about our products and skin and our core ingredient Pitera, they don't just talk about its functional benefits, they talk about how it affected their life and that's where we can really play a bigger role in their life; enabling them but starting from Skin, really going beyond into Life.

The challenge for us as marketers is: “how are you going to tell this story to the consumers?” This is where we really bring constant innovation on the way we communicate our purpose and our brand story. This has been the heart and the soul of the brand, and where we're trying to innovate. We want to be part of the culture. And I believe brands shape culture and should be in the middle of culture. It's really starting from again, understanding the consumers and what are their interests and what would truly delight her. And really creating this hybrid story that you want to tell from a brand storytelling standpoint together with the pop culture of the time of what consumers are really interested in.

How would you define SK-II approach or philosophy when it comes to innovation across the brand?

Innovation for us comes from the starting point. We start from the consumer, not from us. And I think that's really the biggest guiding light for us. “What does the consumer want” and “what are they looking for?” is the starting point and that often leads to the solution, not more products or not more technology for the sake of technology.

Because if you start from consumers, they're not looking for more solutions or new things in life. Consumers will tell you that they're just looking for very simple solutions to their day-to-day issues, something that they could really trust, especially with the changes around the world and in such uncertainties. So as a brand, what is a solution that we have?

One example is the way we innovate on brand building; that is the core thing that we really do. Consumers see that sea of advertisements, the same industry pushing ads at your face. We try to innovate on that and try to be something that could really delight her at the end of the day. When she sees some content, can we be a ‘delighter’ to her true life?

One of the trends that we spotted, going back two years, was a huge search on entertainment content such as carpool karaoke or shows that were good for chilling out at the end of the day. It's a ‘delighter’ of the day and we were thought, “Why can't skincare be like that? Why can't we be playing that role in her life?”

And that one thought sparked the way that we changed our typical like 30-second ads into creating our first ever beauty and entertainment series called the Bare Skin Chat.

We also launched an authentic docu-series connecting back with our brand ambassadors who have been really using the product over 10 years and how their lives have changed how their skin has changed. And what role did us as a brand SK-II, as her partner, and how the product really played in her life?

What are some of the challenges that you and the team face in going through this process of innovating and staying true to the brand building mission?

I would say the biggest challenge is, and it goes back to this whole situation and the rise and the fall of the beauty industry linked with COVID. There's much more temptation now to be a brand that just ‘sells’.

And that's where you know the industry is really moving and that's where you see a lot of promotion rates everywhere and you know at higher promotion rates, there's been much more increase of these key consumption promotion (KCP) times.

There's a lot of contention for the brands to sell. It could make the marketers’ job easier, if you think about it, and that could give us or any brand short-term delivery and business growth. But I do not think that would give us that sustainable business growth that we want.

Do we conform to it? Or do we feel, coming back to: Do we feel this is right for the consumer? And do we feel that will really make a long-term impact? That's really the biggest shift of mindset we're trying to do every day and that's the dilemma that we're facing.

Have you changed your influencer strategy to engage with more with creators and niche communities? What metrics do you use when engaging with these personalities as brand ambassadors?

When it comes to our thoughts on collaborating with celebrities and creators, at the heart of it, I’ll frame it with the word “authenticity”. On this we haven't changed, and that's been at the core of the brand value over the years. But with the boom in creators and celebrities representing their brands, I think they solidified our strategy and our priority on authenticity.

Authenticity is, and has always been, at the centre of everything we do, starting even from the choice of our product and not really changing our product for over 40 years now since its launch, because we know and believe that it’s really that one product to make that biggest difference. And also, going to our celebrity and brand ambassador choices, we set long-term goals. It's not about using the celebrities as the face. We partner with the people who advocate and who really stand for and die for our brand, who are a part of that. Who share that philosophy and are true advocates of our products.

This is critical with consumers, especially the younger generation, the Gen Z and millennials. And that's what also sets us apart from where the industry is going, where it is driven by “fresh meat”, with new faces, new product launches.

The My Pitera Story is the perfect testimonial of that. That campaign stood out for going against the common belief of “we need to go with younger faces, the fresh new faces”. We went back to the people who have been using the product for over 10 years and those stories are valuable.

How has your approach to metrics and measurement developed over time?

It's both quantitative and qualitative. Now of course, quantitatively, we look at those core measures, daily and weekly. So, we look at how the search is going, that's a key indicator of whether consumers are really interested in us and responding to us. We look at those organic searches, the reach number that we're able to get through our campaigns, number of views our content is generating, quality engagements, checking the quality views, likes or comments, shares. So, we track into those metrics and it's like a Bible that we really track to see the brand health measure.

But at the same time, I try to guide the team to not be too obsessed with purely the numbers and focus on the qualitative change, how the perception of the brand and the product in the consumer’s mind are changing. It's the equity shift.

Could you share more about the brand’s e-commerce strategy and how you ensure the brand experience remains consistent throughout?

I don’t think e-commerce is a choice for any brand. The world has shifted and that's why we also need to shift. The challenge is how do we embed e-commerce into the entire brand-building process in a way that creates meaningful experiences with consumers.

The common thinking around e-commerce is that it’s a selling platform and there are a lot of the metrics that allow you to interact with consumers. There are livestreams and live commerce for example.

So, our challenge on how we look at the e-commerce strategy is [that] this is not a matter of choice, we must be on e-commerce platforms and all the different platforms. But how do we leverage and use this platform in an innovative and meaningful way to delight consumers? Using it as a tool to provide an entertainment and shopping experience and as a platform for us to build our brand equity versus just selling has been a key task that we've been working on.

Another example in the offline space is how we linked this whole social commerce concept in our Hainan store where it was built with the entire social commerce experience in mind. We partnered China Duty Free Group and opened our first ever social retail pop-up store in Hainan. The whole concept was while waiting in queue, they can scan in and immerse themselves in more of that cinematic universe of our Change Destiny campaign that was going on in the animation phase, and then linking that back to experience the brand.

How we use those platforms, and the way that it diverges to build our brand equity and give that delighting experience to the consumers, is the way that we look at the e-commerce strategy.

What are SK-II’s strategic priorities when it comes to sustainability and how do you avoid “greenwashing” in communicating these initiatives with consumers?

It's a big theme for us. With the scale and the size that we have as a brand, we feel incredibly responsible for being that force for good, from the manufacturing process, how do we make it right?

Then it goes on to what consumers will get and see. How do we make our products sustainable?

Our Andy Warhol X SK-II Pitera Essence Limited Edition collection is a fully recyclable product that we're launching, and that has to be the norm. We also can’t stop there but also share that actively and having people recycle.

So we're also putting a lot of efforts on communicating this to the consumers. Again, borrowing that, hybrid of the pop culture, so we will soon be launching within our metaverse, what we're calling the SK-II City, where on that bottle, there is a QR code and the consumers can scan to enter and explore an arcade of games.

It’s a hybrid of the game and gamification where you could be a recycling master and play games about recycling the products and what parts are the right things to go, driving that positive change in consumers’ behaviours and minds with storytelling in an engaging way.

What's your outlook for the year ahead?

One good thing for us as a brand and the skincare industry is that consumers are interested in skincare and there has been a high interest in this category since the pandemic started.

Now at the same time, I think the challenge is that the platforms are diverging fast. The channels are diverging and changing so fast, even within the same e-commerce base. It started from having one or two key channels to diverging into different platforms and how you can purchase products.

So the constant challenge for brands, including us in SK-II, is upping the game and adapting to the fast-changing nature of this industry and where the divergence is happening in terms of where consumers are being in terms of platforms or channels.

Again, it goes back to that core brand building innovation for us and how do we constantly stay up in the game. 

If there was one thing about the marketing craft that you could kill off next year. What would it be?

I think what I’d love to cut out is this temptation to make an ad that sells. It's that temptation to just make something that could sell then just push it out there that could give us this week’s sale. But those small efforts and time spent on that will make us move further away from making something that would truly disrupt, and something that will truly delight the consumer.

And if that doesn't exist, how could we evolve better as an industry and as brands? Being part of shifting the culture and being a true delighter in consumers’ life is hope. We will move better as an industry and as a brand, being more responsible in consumers’ lives.