Julienna Law
Sep 29, 2021

Why SK-II’s storytelling still resonates with Chinese consumers

In an industry that thrives on newness, SK-II takes a different approach with its “My PITERA Story” campaign — and it's winning in China

Photo: SK-II's Weibo
Photo: SK-II's Weibo

SK-II is winding back the clock in more ways than one. On August 19, the Japanese cosmetics brand best known for its anti-aging formula recruited four long-time ambassadors to remake their first skincare campaigns. 

In the throwback “My PITERA Story” docu-series, actresses Tangwei, Nini, Ayase Haruka, and Chloe Grace Moretz recounted how their lives — and skin — have changed since using their first bottle of PITERA Essence years ago.

Chinese actress Nini in the 2021 remake of her first 2013 SK-II campaign. Photo: SK-II

 This focus on heritage and continuity is a welcome change in an industry that always pushes newness. Especially in China, local players like Perfect Diary have dominated the beauty market with their endless collaborations and short product life cycles, releasing an average of five to six items per month. However, this strategy comes at a price: Perfect Diary racked up $525 million (3.4 billion RMB) in marketing expenses alone in 2020, a year-on-year increase of 172 percent that far outpaced its 73-percent revenue growth rate, widening its net losses. 

That is why, rather than compete with the quickening market turnover or growing KOL reach, SK-II has turned to storytelling. And by bringing together star products, inspiring voices, and relevant social issues, the brand hopes to cultivate a deeper emotional resonance with its audience. “It is no longer about selling products, creating ads, and driving promotions but engaging [female consumers],” said SK-II’s chief executive of global, Sandeep Seth. 

According to its parent company, Procter & Gamble, the skincare giant had “one of its best years ever,” with both profits and sales surpassing pre-COVID fiscal 2021 levels. Below, Jing Daily deconstructs SK-II’s storytelling efforts to see how the 40-year-old brand continues to resonate in China and beyond.

Building around iconic products 

Although C-beauty brands are notorious for blowing out their marketing budgets, they face the uphill battle of having their products live up to their hype. Here, premium skincare brands have a reputational advantage. As Adrian Peh, general manager of Fashion & Beauty at the luxury agency Gusto Luxe, told Jing Daily, “They have already built trust and can spend fewer resources educating consumers about the brand, product safety, and effectiveness.”  

Of course, this trust was not built overnight. SK-II began its quest for clear skin back in the 1970s when it discovered that the hands of elderly workers at a Japanese sake brewery looked remarkably youthful from coming in constant contact with yeast. After years of research, scientists created the PITERA, a vitamin-rich liquid derived from the natural fermentation process. Soon after, the brand’s most iconic product to date, Facial Treatment Essence, which contains over 90 percent of this ingredient, was launched. 

Since then, Facial Treatment Essence has been hailed as a “Miracle Water” (神仙水) in Asia, with a bottle sold every two seconds. But even with this type of cult following, Juliette Duveau, founder of the consulting agency The Chinese Pulse, stressed that brands should still consider strong product activations across the Chinese calendar to excite new and existing consumers. “SK-II has been quite strong at choosing the right IPs and artists for collaborations to seduce Chinese consumers looking for ‘safe’ products but also with a scarcity and a special twist,” she said.

SK-II has launched artistic limited editions of its frosted glass bottles to celebrate every occasion, from the Year of the Ox (right) to the coming of spring (left). Photo: SK-II

Amplifying credible voices

Although ambassador appointments have grown more complicated in light of China’s celebrity crackdown, they remain an effective way to generate publicity and reach large audiences. In a sense, they’re the story’s supporting characters, helping the protagonist (the star product) shine. 

But unlike other beauty names, SK-II isn’t chasing the hottest “little fresh meat” idols. For its “My PITERA Story” campaign, the P&G brand called back four global ambassadors (two of whom had worked with SK-II for over ten years) to share their personal experiences using PITERA Essence. While they may not be among China’s trending stars, they offer SK-II more than just a flawless face and millions of followers: authenticity. 

Talking about her skincare journey, Chloe Grace Moretz shared that, before using PITERA, “I used to have people in hair and makeup look at me and go, ‘I don’t really know what to do with this.’ That was something that really broke my courage about myself and my confidence.” That builds upon her first campaign in 2018, the “Bare Skin Project,” where she was challenged to be photographed without any makeup on, highlighting both the quality of the PITERA Essence and the brand’s emphasis on natural beauty and personal growth. 

Spotlighting social issues 

But as Seth pointed out, consumers “have much more on their minds than just skin and beauty” — particularly after the pandemic. As such, the skincare leader established its first film studio division to delve into issues that impact women today. Since its launch in March, SK-II Studio has released several films starring female Olympic athletes, in which they grapple with self-doubt, online bullying, and gender stereotypes.

And with women fueling a new wave of consumption in China, the brand has taken extra steps to speak to this demographic. On that note, Peh continued: “Through addressing the tensions many young Chinese women are facing today, such as economic freedom versus societal expectations, or self-expression and exploration versus career stability, SK-II positions itself as relatable and fresh.” Centered around its brand purpose of #CHANGEDESTINY (改写命运), past commercials have covered China-specific topics such as “leftover women,” the marriage market, and family pressures.

The next chapter

While SK-II continues to pave the way for storytelling, it is no longer the only player in the ring. According to Olivia Plotnick, founder of the social media agency Wai Social, SK-II’s earlier campaigns garnered a lot of attention simply because no other brand in China had done anything like it. Now, these campaigns are everywhere. For example, on International Women’s Day, the local skincare brands Proya and China Women’s Daily dropped a viral video that challenged the gender assumptions people make. 

Therefore, for SK-II to continue tugging at heartstrings (and wallets), it will need to keep abreast of what Chinese women want and need. “The challenge now for SK-II is how not to repeat themselves but how to tell a new and equally powerful, genuine story,” Plotnick added. Because keeping consumers invested will be the key to keeping the chapter open in China.

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