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An Olympics delay may have changed SK-II’s marketing destiny for the better

Sk-II has launched a tech-enabled pop-up in Hainan

With the Olympics coming back to Tokyo after a delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, brands are launching their much-anticipated sponsorship platforms to the world. For SK-II, a global brand with Japanese roots, owned by Olympic sponsor P&G, the Tokyo Olympics was the perfect place to supercharge its messaging around female confidence. The Drum spoke to SK-II global’s marketing leaders to find out how they changed their destiny in such a challenging year.

Earlier this week SK-II launched a major campaign titled the ‘VS’ series, centered on six brand videos about the human stories behind some of the world’s most accomplished female athletes. The campaign launched alongside a specially written soundtrack by John Legend and localized experiential shopping activity in key markets, such as China.

The six films have been produced by the brand’s recently launched in-house film studio SK-II Studio. The theme fits with the brand’s longstanding #ChangeDestiny messaging, in which it aims to help connect with its target audience on an emotional level around real issues impacting their confidence. According to SK-II, its overarching message is “destiny is not a matter of chance, it’s a matter of choice”.

The athletes in the films include gymnast Simone Biles, world-record swimmer Liu Xiang, two-time Olympic medalist and table tennis player Ishikawa Kasumi, badminton duo and Olympic gold medalists Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo, surfer Mahina Maeda and Japan volleyball team Hinotori Nippon.

Yoegin Chang, senior brand director, global at SK-II, told The Drum that while it does tap into the brand’s core values, the feel of the new campaign is very different to previous films.

“We’ve been on this journey for over seven years now with #ChangeDestiny, starting with ‘Marriage Market’ and ‘Timelines’, the recent docuseries and everything in between. This time around, as we were preparing for the Tokyo Olympic Games, we were partnering with the athletes. We saw these women as inspiring, of course, at the top of their game, but there was more to it.

“There was a human side of the journey that they’ve all been through and it was something very unique at an individual level, but there were also very universal insights beneath that. The ‘VS’ Series films captured these athletes and their individual stories on many things that resonated with our audience across the world,” she explains.

Luckily for SK-II, selecting such universal human stories for the activation meant pausing the campaign for an entire year caused little change to the overall impact. In fact, Chang says it just gave the brand more time to develop the campaign even further.

She says the whole team flew to New York in March last year to launch the campaign with Simone Biles, to see the American city shut down just the following week and the campaign put on pause for over a year.

“We had to pivot many times but, surprisingly, great things happened and we were able to make this project bigger in scale, with a bigger impact than what it once was,” she says.

“Things that were constant was #ChangeDestiny as the purpose. That was something that was in there from the beginning and we are continuing to do that. The development of SK-II Studio came on this journey over the past year. We were able to also introduce Ikee-san (Rikako Ikee) into our family, because last year she was still going through her battle with her illness [Ikee was diagnosed with leukemia in 2019]. It was miraculous to see her come back and really win back the game. She’s now going for that Olympics as part of Japan’s national swimming team.”

Staying firm on the theme of confidence and tackling societal pressures arguably made the campaign more relevant after the events of the past year, according to Delphine Buttin, senior brand director, SK-II Global.

“Our message to tackle the societal pressures didn’t change from last year to this year. It might be even more needed, actually, after this pandemic. We have seen heightened pressure on women who have to take on so many more responsibilities from work, the house, the kids, homeschooling, so on and so forth. As you’re at home you spend a lot more time on social media, which heightens those pressures around women,” she explains.

With the stars of SK-II’s sponsorship being female athletes, living up to this promise of being a brand that supports women through these challenges, a delay in the Olympics meant even more of a reason to stand by its athletes.

Sandeep Seth, chief executive of Global SK-II, says: “One of the things we’ve stayed firm on is our commitment towards the Olympics and the athletes. We know that athletes have suffered the most during this period. This is a big moment for many athletes. Like all of us, this is their career. This is their moment of glory. As a brand we said – irrespective of what happens – we will continue that support, both from a P&G point of view as well as SK-II, which is one of the biggest sponsors of this Olympic games.”

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One of the bigger changes to the activity was around the retail and physical activations that had been planned. As with many brands around the world over the past year, the need for digital and contactless touchpoints had been compounded by the pandemic.

SK-II has therefore focused its retail activation on pop-ups that fuse social and retail technology with the content and creative from the campaign. The first execution of this is in Hainan, China, where a pop-up store will use a contactless version of the brand’s AI skin tool, as well as interactive contactless ways to share content on WeChat.

Adds Seth: “I think one big pivot that’s happening for us is that physical activities are getting lesser, while virtual activities are going up dramatically for us. Along with the physical pop-up that you find in Hainan, the team is also working on a virtual pop-up store.”

Ultimately, the virtual and physical pop-up stores aim to offer a safe and interactive way to shop and try SK-II products, while integrating the creative and messaging from the ‘VS’ Series.

“What we're doing here is bringing a hyper-realistic world version of the ‘VS’ Series, which is a very animated world beyond real life. Consumers and shoppers can experience this in a unique way, merging the four walls with your mobile phone screen – for example, leveraging AR technology to bring something bigger than life.

“We’re also bringing a new innovative skincare shopping experience in that venue where you can get your skin diagnostics, with SK-II’s unique big data and analytical tools, but in a contactless way. This is our latest innovation, pivoting on the latest trends and the concerns of shoppers in stores,” explains Chang.

The shop launched in Hainan this month, timed with a YouTube live launch for the campaign with the athletes and John Legend. In terms of what’s next for the campaign, the aim will be to get the views of the films as high as possible – not just for the brand’s benefit, but to contribute to a charity pledge that SK-II has made.

“We established the SK-II #ChangeDestiny Fund, which is that every view of an SK-II Studio film puts together a $1 donation from the brand – it’s set to half a million dollars as of today,” according to Chang.

The delay in the Olympics will have been a personal setback for athletes and the team at the sponsorship brands. But, as SK-II’s message proclaims, “destiny is not a matter of chance, it’s a matter of choice”, and the brand has put its full force into bringing the campaign back to life better than ever.

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