Surekha Ragavan
Mar 24, 2021

SK-II’s marketing head on choosing purpose over short-term sales

The P&G skincare brand, known for making headway in purpose-driven campaigns, is steadfast about choosing long-term messaging over the quick route to direct sales.

(Shuterstock)
(Shuterstock)

In China, an unmarried woman over the age 27 is deemed 'sheng nu' or a leftover woman. And in 2016, P&G skincare brand SK-II aimed to defy the term by creating ‘Marriage Market Takeover’, a campaign about women choosing their life choices on their terms. The campaign, with the help of Forsman & Bodenfors, would go on to become one of SK-II’s most memorable pieces of work and a shining example of executing purpose. 

These days, the brand continues to put out work that stays true to its #ChangeDestiny purpose, including an upcoming series of films, the first of which is directed by renowned Japanese film director Hirokazu Kore-eda. (Watch a trailer of the film below.) The new series also coincides with the launch of SK-II Studio, P&G’s first owned film studio division and content hub, which will bring together filmmakers, animators, musicians and content creators.

“We're trying to challenge beauty stereotypes,” YoeGin Chang, senior brand director for global SK-II, told Campaign Asia-Pacific. “What makes one beautiful has so many different definitions. And sometimes, unfortunately, those definitions are already predefined for women. It's sometimes the way you look, the way you act or the way you feel.”

Through brand work, Chang said she wants to emphasise that “destiny is not a matter of chance, but a matter of choice”. She added: “We know that as a responsible brand, as we shed light and provoke the right conversations, and hopefully also trigger the right behaviour, we can do greater good for our communities.”

SK-II’s purpose sits within three main pillars: skin, life and planet. Skin is, well, self-explanatory for a skincare brand. Life as a pillar was added because the brand's target audience is continually bound by social pressures and behavioral expectations, and SK-II felt a need to get a share of voice in those conversations. Planet, meanwhile, is a recently added pillar where the brand talks about sustainability and taking responsibility for its role on the planet.

We’ve covered purpose for a while now, and brands aiming to empower women is not a new thing. So much so that the world of women-marketed skincare and fashion has become a sea of generic language.

But Chang is determined that SK-II has elements in its purpose strategy that make it unique, chief of which is acknowledging a diverse breadth of social pressures that women face. “It’s quite unique because of the territory of the conversations that we have, which is not limited to skin beauty,” she said.

Chang added that the brand doesn’t rest on grand claims and bouts of inspiration, but is also committed to converting their concern into action. The #ChangeDestiny fund, for instance, which launched yesterday, includes a donation and partnership scheme.

Sandeep Seth, CEO, global SK-II, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that the segment's 'sea of sameness' is not necessarily a bad thing if that’s what it takes to bring on social transformation. “In fact, it's better if other brands and competitors in the industry come and lend their voice to this particular area, because it's only then we can create a movement,” he said.

Seth added that purpose is rooted in the brand’s DNA and value system, to the extent that campaigns are conceptualised by this aspect rather than profitability. “We are very, very clear on which areas to try out and which areas not to, and we’re always guided by the north star of our value system,” he said.

Challenging facets of culture may not be an area that all brands are comfortable with, but Seth doesn’t chalk it up to creative bravery. Rather, he said that it’s about “standing up for what’s important”.

“We don't do this for the sake of activism or protest. Even when we talk about the marriage market campaign, we are not saying that we’re against marriage, we’re only advocating choice. What we’re trying to do is surface those unsaid tensions and help people resolve them,” he said.

So, if profitability is not a factor, how is the brand measuring success? While the brand doesn't reveal much about this, Chang said that “there are actually too many KPIs these days.” Ultimately, she said, it goes back to how the brand’s target audience sees and feels the brand, and that may not be linked with direct sales.

“There are different attributes that we want to really win, we want to achieve mutual trust between our audience and the brand,” she said. “And when we say that we fail, it doesn't mean that it goes the other way. It really just means that we don’t see a spike that we expect at times. But that's okay.”

What has surprised her with the insights on some campaigns was how universal they eventually became. The marriage market campaign, for instance, was meant to address a specifically Chinese phenomenon, but blew up across the region because “it was something that people could relate to at different levels”. This has informed the team’s tactic to firstly think local before proceeding to find universal themes to feed into other markets.

All of this, according to Fu Shuqi, senior brand communications director at SK-II, is making the brand think about the intangible and long-term value of purpose. “Coming out of these times, we know that there is pressure on local brands to go for things in short-term sales and promotions,” said Fu. “But we stay rooted to our purpose, irrespective of the temptation to go into something short-term just because everybody's jumping on it as a bandwagon.”

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