Robert Sawatzky
Aug 22, 2023

SK-II CEO on marketing activations, storytelling, AI and more

Sue Kyung Lee, global CEO of P&G-owned health and beauty brand SK-II tells Campaign why exhibitions like its recent Secret Key House pop-up make sense, and what she looks for in good marketing.

SK-II CEO on marketing activations, storytelling, AI and more

To say that SK-II is passionate about Pitera would be a massive understatement. In all its associate products, marketing materials, website media (billed as Pitera TV), its patented and trademarked fermented ingredient with vitamins and amino acids appears everywhere in all caps as 'PITERA™' (we use 'Pitera' to conform to our journalistic style). So, when the Japanese health and beauty brand went as far as to declare a 'World Pitera Day' last year, few were surprised at the audacity.

So, how does a global cosmetics brand continue to top that, and build momentum around its key products? Well, it levels up and declares a 'World Pitera Month', for one. But, the occasion needed a centrepiece to kick it off. And while SK-II opted for an exclusive pop-up activation, a common marketing choice among health and beauty brands, theirs was on a different scale.

The Secret Key House exhibition in Japan. Bottom row L-R: Haruka Ayase, Mina, Tang Wei

A few weeks ago, SK-II created its first 'Secret Key House' exhibition in Tokyo, inspired by the brand’s initial name (‘Secret Key II’). Architecturally striking, the exhibit pictured above was set up in Standby, Ba-Tsu art gallery in Shibuya for just one weekend (July 29-30) as a space where visitors could unlock ten of SK-II's best-kept secrets amid "multi-sensorial artistic installations."

It's also where SK-II’s global celebrity ambassadors—Japanese actress Haruka Ayase, award-winning Chinese actress Tang Wei, and Mina of global girl group Twice were brought in to mark the opening and interact with the public.

Notably for us, SK-II even made its global CEO available to discuss its marketing efforts, providing a rare opportunity to see what CEOs look for in good marketing campaigns, and whether they feel pop-up activations like these are worth the investment. Naturally, we also wanted to ask her about brand challenges as well as AI.

Below is Campaign's interaction with Sue Kyung Lee, edited for brevity and clarity. 

What was the inspiration and ideation behind Secret Key House and why do you support it?

The inspiration behind the Secret Key House began with Pitera, our exclusive and iconic ingredient that is at the heart of our brand. You may be familiar with the birth of SK-II with Pitera—a chance encounter in a sake brewery, a group of scientists observed that the fermentation process made the hands of aged sake brewers extraordinarily soft and youthful. Over years of research, the scientists unlocked one single yeast strain that held the secret.

This was how Pitera was born and remains essentially unchanged for over 40 years. Its wonders on skin continue to unfold and what we have discovered is that the only thing better than Pitera is more Pitera. Last year, we celebrated SK-II’s first ever World Pitera Day, which marked the start of telling the full story of Pitera to consumers, media and influencer partners. We received a great response—double-digit increased search volume for Pitera and more than doubled positive sentiment about SK-II, so we knew that we were on the right track.

So, this year, we are thrilled to extend this to World Pitera Month as a symbol of our deep commitment to skincare expertise and product craftsmanship, handing our consumers and fans the keys to unlock some of our brand’s best-kept secrets.

As a CEO, how do you decide which types of marketing initiatives to support, among those that your chief marketers present to you?

The first priority is that consumers must be kept at the heart of everything that we do. Does the campaign meet the consumer’s needs and wants based on a deep understanding of her? Does it raise the bar in serving her with irresistibly superior brand experiences and product innovations across all omnichannel touchpoints? The second is Pitera. Are we fueling irresistibility on Pitera and more Pitera superiority with our campaigns and innovations? Does it tell a powerful and authentic story about Pitera?

The Secret Key campaign and Secret Key House are examples of the unique SK-II experiences that we strive to bring to our consumers.

How do you gauge return on investment for a presumably expensive activation like this one, where the public will only view it for one weekend? Are beauty brands so fond of pop-up activations within their campaigns because they engage with consumers directly?

If you look at the world today and the type of content that our consumers watch and scroll through daily, it’s all about stories. From TikTok to Instagram to Douyin and Little Red Book—what captures hearts and minds are powerful, authentic stories.

At SK-II, we have a powerful and authentic story. We’re constantly looking for meaningful ways to connect with our consumers through genuine stories. This leads into understanding that our consumers also want to tell their own stories. They seek experiences that they can share on the same platforms that they consume stories on.

With the Secret Key House we want to give them a platform to tell their skin transformation story with a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s about providing her with experiences at every touchpoint that are memorable and rewarding.

This year, we saw many consumers going back to our counters asking about the Secret Key campaign and our Secret Key House launch…many of them engaging on social media with us about the experience as well as products that we featured.

CEO Sue Kyung Lee with SK-II global ambassadors Tang Wei, Mina & Haruka Ayase

What are SK-II's largest brand challenges and opportunities right now in a highly competitive global beauty market?

Consumers are at the heart of all that we do as a brand. We need to seek to understand her better and serve her better than anyone else, and we need to do so seamlessly across all the omnichannel touchpoints that she is on.

We are living in an omnichannel world now—this is ours and our consumers’ reality. When we talked to our consumers during our research, it was fascinating because we asked them, “How much time do you share online vs how much time do you spend offline?” and no one could respond! They asked, “What do you mean? When I am physically shopping and browsing my social channels, is that considered offline or online?”

What does this mean for SK-II? It means that we have to be present and raise the bar in serving her wherever she chooses to look or shop. It’s about being that number one brand wherever she looks, be it social, on review platforms like @Cosme, Little Red Book, Douyin, TikTok or in-store, making sure that her investment is worth it in whichever platform that she’s on. We do this by delivering the best and most relevant content and holistic value to her, and providing seamless omnichannel interaction by serving her offline and online with our signature omotenashi touch where the experience at every touchpoint is rewarding and memorable for her.

Many top beauty brands are turning to AI and technology to personalise their beauty products and services for consumers who all have individual beauty needs. How critical is this area to SK-II's success? What might be the pitfalls and opportunities for SK-II in this space?

Personalisation is extremely essential to SK-II. Consumers have higher and higher expectations towards brands, and as a global prestige skincare brand, we need to go above and beyond the minimum service requirements by bringing SK-II’s signature omotenashi service as a skincare expert to all our services and experiences.

Technology is a way to enhance consumer experiences offline as much as it does online, and an example of this is our latest 'Magic Scan' skin analysis tool to helping consumers better understand their skin. It uses a combination of state-of-the-art facial recognition, computer vision, and AI technology to assess her skin against a database of over 1.2 million women worldwide to unlock her skin age and strengths, and forecast her skin’s potential.

We’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback across all markets for the Magic Scan, with consumers appreciating the opportunity to learn about their skin’s condition and potential in ways that they never thought possible. We’re continuing to develop new features for it based on our scientific discoveries on skin and have rolled out a first-in-the-world skin aging measurement feature to the Magic Scan in line with our new anti-aging cream.

Campaign Asia

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