SK-II CEO and marketer interview: 'We didn't know what we were getting into' with bold animated series

More than a month after launching its global content studio, SK-II STUDIO, the beauty brand is back with an animated anthology series titled "VS" featuring six films based on the real-life experiences of six Olympic athletes. Done in collaboration with Grey and MediaCom, the animated films showcase gymnast Simone Biles, swimmer Liu Xiang, table tennis player Ishikawa Kasumi, badminton duo Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo, surfer Mahina Maeda and Japan volleyball team Hinotori Nippon. They each explore what it means to take destiny into their own hands, overcoming societal pressures which dictates how they should look, act and feel to be perfect.

Each film within the "VS" series by SK-II STUDIO explores different aspects of societal pressures that women experience: trolls, pressure, image obsession, rules, limitations, and machine-like mindsets. Brought to life in the form of a kaiju (strange beast), each kaiju sheds light on the inner demon athlete must defeat to pursue their destiny. This pays homage to the brand's Japanese heritage, where manga (comics) is popular.

Yoegin Chang, SK-II's senior brand director of global, told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that kaiju is a metaphor that is used very often in Japanese animations. She added that some of the societal pressures that the films capture may be sparked by external factors. However, it becomes a monster and an internal battle when one takes it in. Each film features a different kaiju and showcases a different way of tackling it.

A mix of animation and live-action, the VS series spans a broad range of genres including sci-fi, fantasy, action and sports. Each episode is independent, with its own universe and style, featuring the work animation studios Imaginary Forces, Passion Pictures, Platige Image, and C3 and original music from singer-songwriters such as John Legend and Lexie Liu. VaynerMedia Asia Pacific, HUGE, Mano, and Hogarth Worldwide were also involved in the campaign.

According to Chang, live-action was very critical to show the authentic personal story of each and every athlete that it is partnering with. At the same time, because of some of the issues that the athlete faces, some of these societal pressures that she is put under are very sensitive and sometimes can be much better visualised. Hence, it decided to showcase that aspect using animation.

Chang said:

We did not know what we were getting into. [Merging live action and animation] was a new attempt for us because we are so used to real footage-based storytelling.

Nonetheless, it was quite a journey for team as it learnt how animations get made, how some decisions have to be made way before, and some aspects cannot be changed.

"You cannot reshoot anything; many layers of work are required. But all in all, we like what we are seeing at the end of the day where we get to the bottom of human insight, and borrow the power of imagination of the creative and production houses that we have partnered with, to really bring to life a story that connects with diverse audiences," she explained.

This latest series follows the launch of The Center Lane film in March this year which explored how destiny is not a matter of chance but a matter of choice. The films seek to inspire every woman that they have the power to #ChangeDestiny. The Center Lane was the first film by SK-II STUDIO which seeks to tackle social pressures impacting women today through film and storytelling.

"#ChangeDestiny is not just a campaign but a purpose that is ingrained in every activity that we do as a brand from our innovation, and how we look at our products, to our commercialisation that you see through campaigns, and our go-to-market," Sandeep Seth, CEO of global, SK-II said. When designing its activities and marketing activations, the team asks itself one simple question: "What can we do to really make a difference in the lives of our consumer?" According to Seth, both SK-II and P&G need to be a force of growth and a force for good at the same time. He believes that the #ChangeDestiny really helps enables the brand to be a force for good in every aspect of the work it does.

"It is something not just from a brand activity point of view, but something that is ingrained in each and every SK-II employee, where we believe this is our personal purpose to make a difference with everything we do," he explained.

Siddika Dehlvi, executive creative business director, said by focusing on the stories of the athletes, SK-II is showing how even the best of us have to face challenges when chasing dreams." We wanted to celebrate these journeys in a way that has never been done before, bringing together elements from Japanese culture through anime, live action, different film genres and unique soundtracks," Dehlvi said.

WPP's team lead Nihar Das added that the Olympic Games have always been a global celebration of unity, which is now more important than ever. "It is rare when a brand’s purpose aligns perfectly with the need of the hour. Not only to highlight the pressures surrounding women in our society, but also to share the incredible human stories of how 6 women overcame these pressures. It has been a rewarding experience to create and be part of this work," Das said.

Separately, the beauty brand has also built its first-ever virtual city, SK-II CITY, for the launch which is inspired by the streets of Tokyo. The SK-II CITY transports visitors to the middle of a bustling urban intersection with all the sights, sounds and sense of discovery of Shibuya Crossing. Japanese icons such as Mount Fuji and Tokyo Tower as well as brand experiences can be found in the virtual city. A backstage tour is also available for consumers to immerse themselves in animation sketches, film trivia and behind-the-scenes footage from the six athletes and singer songwriters.

Bringing the VS series to life with a pop-up store

Alongside the global premiere of the VS series is the VS social retail pop-up store in the Haitang Bay Duty Free Shopping Centre in Sanya, Hainan. Open throughout the month of May, the pop-up store is immersive and features contactless skin counselling technology as well as a social retail experience.

While the pop-up store concept is not new to SK-II, having opened ones in Tokyo, Shanghai, the US, and Singapore, the latest one in Hainan is in line with its objective to meet the evolving shopper needs in the offline space, especially when the line between online and offline are blurred. According to Chang, SK-II aims to create the "phygital" experience in its stores and tackle shopper friction by leveraging technology. 

While queueing to make their purchase, shoppers can interact with the installation along the line to watch the VS series films and unlock exclusive content via a WeChat mini program created exclusively for the pop-up. Through the WeChat mini programme, shoppers can also unlock exclusive collectibles and an AR experience that immerses them in a VS kaiju battle alongside the Olympic athletes featured in the series.

Meanwhile, the contactless skin counselling technology, the Mini Magic Scan, is an AI-enabled skin analysis tool that allows visitors to understand their skin strengths and potential, unlock their skin age and receive personalised skin analysis and product recommendations within three minutes.

When asked why it chose Hainan for the pop-up store, Seth explained that it has witnessed commerce in the city "explode" over the last 12 months since the pandemic, with about four to five times the number of growth in Hainan. It also foresees Hainan to become one of the biggest beauty markets in the world and with Labour Day being a golden week in China this month, SK-II also expects a rise in tourism and hence, traffic for the pop-up store.

"I would not call this an experiment because Hainan is too important to just put an experiment there; I would call it a flagship pilot," he said. SK-II's intent, Seth said, is to always start with big unique experiences that create memorable moments for shoppers and find ways of bringing them to consumers worldwide.

"We believe that the ROI [for the pop-up store] comes from creating memorable experiences for our shoppers, which builds the long-term value for the brand and the business for us. The reason we are investing is not how much sale I can get over the two weeks. While the sale is important, it is not the only objective because we want people to remember and talk about it. That is what creates the long-term equity for the brand," Seth explained.

He added that SK-II does not measure its marketing initiatives with short-term ROIs but instead think about how they align with the brand purpose and strategy.

SK-II did not reveal the monetary investment behind the pop-up store.

Meanwhile, SK-II is also setting up a #ChangeDesinty fund, contributing US$1 for every view garnered on each SK-II STUDIO film in support of women in pursuing their destiny to create positive change as part of its brand purpose this year. Total contribution to the #ChangeDestiny fund will be capped at US$500,000. Participating organisations will be announced at a later date.

Impact of pandemic on marketing

The pandemic might have brought about the rise in digital, commerce, and live streaming. Seth, however, said one thing about SK-II that remains constant is its resolve to be "a human brand". While there might be different technologies and platforms, a one-to-one human connection still matters for the brand and this is evident in its investments in the SK-II STUDIO, #ChangeDestiny Fund, and VS series to build a strong connection with consumers and everything it wants to achieve.

"I see a lot of optimisim and hope moving forward, but that does not necessarily mean selling more or pushing more product. I think people are getting more conscious and asking the right questions. Over the last year, people are expecting brands and big companies to be more responsible in everything they do, from consumption to sustainability and social responsibility," Seth said.

Chang agreed with him, adding that while promotions are attractive and can bring in short-term business gains, these are not something that its consumers currently need, especially when they are facing societal pressures. "We really want to lend our voice to be the force for good and growth. Hence, we are not looking a promotional social media posts but rather telling a humanly inspiring story that can help our consumers, who are mainly females, to relook at her life and make the right choice for herself," she explained.

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