After 40 years of transforming the skin of millions of women around the world, SK-II is ready to take on a new generation of users. Global CEO, Sue Kyung Lee, tells us how.
Even after four decades in the business, Japanese skincare brand SK-II remains a market leader selling a bottle of its “Miracle Water” every three seconds around the world.
What lies in this youth-giving elixir is a fascinating story that predates a time when SK-II began to question why elderly sake brewers had wrinkled faces, but extraordinarily soft and youthful-looking hands. These hands were in constant contact with the sake fermentation process.
It took years of research for scientists, but they managed to isolate this secret ingredient, and called it Pitera. Packed with over 50 micronutrients – vitamins, amino acids, minerals and organic acids – the unique composition of Pitera resembles skin’s natural moisturising factors. This allows Pitera to be absorbed quickly and deeply into skin delivering all its goodness, resulting in bouncy, dewy, soft, and crystal clear skin.
Since then, SK-II Pitera Essence has become a special secret shared by celebrities all over the world such as Chloe Grace Moretz, Simone Biles, Tangwei, Chun Xia, Haruka Ayase and Kasumi Arimura and Naomi Watanabe. Aside from its Pitera Essence, other bestsellers include SK-II GenOptics Aura Essence for brightening, and SK-II Skinpower Cream for hydration and anti-ageing.
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To celebrate this iconic and exclusive ingredient, SK-II marked July 13 as World Pitera Day with a celebration in Tokyo attended by its celebrity ambassadors: Japanese actress Haruka Ayase, Mina of global girl group Twice (pictured above), Japanese actress and model Ayaka Miyoshi, and Japanese comedian Naomi Watanabe. Together, they introduced SK-II’s latest 24/7 Skin Fluctuation Study.
Conducted 24/7 for over six weeks, the study uncovers how women’s skin condition-texture, pores, redness, dullness, hydration and barrier function fluctuates greatly within a day, even looking up to almost 10 years older due to multiple daily stressors. SK-II discovered that after regular use of Pitera Essence, skin fluctuations are dramatically stabilised.
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“Pitera has remained unchanged but the miracles of its scientific discoveries and innovations continue to unfold. Through SK-II’s partnerships with the world’s top scientists and dermatologists on extensive research studies, we have never stopped uncovering new Pitera secrets and its ability to transform skin to crystal clear skin. World Pitera Day is a recognition and celebration of the miracles that Pitera has brought and will continue bringing to the world,” says global SK-II CEO Sue Kyung Lee.
In an interview with Options, Lee shares more on how SK-II stays relevant for its next generation of users.
Can you take us through the journey of Pitera and how it helped SK-II evolve over the years?
Pitera is exclusive and unique to SK-II and has remained at the heart of our brand for over 40 years. It started with our very first product — the SK-II Pitera Essence which contains over 90% Pitera and was one of the first products in the world to bring fermentation into skincare. Since then, every single SK-II product contains Pitera. And Pitera continues to be produced in only one place in the world — the SK-II Shiga Plant in Japan.
Beauty trends are ever changing. How does SK-II stay ahead of the curve?
We’re living in an era of change. In many ways, change is the only constant these days, be it in communication with rapidly evolving digital and social platforms or commerce.
We need to shape our destiny in this era of change as an iconic global prestige skincare brand.
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Authenticity has always been our core value at SK-II. And, we want to do this in a way that celebrates what we are about, helping our consumers achieve real transformation to crystal clear skin with the miracle of Pitera and in a way that is true to our purpose and beliefs.
I’ve also always been a big believer of harnessing and connecting consumer knowledge and data, to better serve and delight our consumers with our innovations and experiences wherever she is, offline and online.
What are some of your observations about beauty consumption in recent times?
The pandemic accelerated new ways of consumption across the board, including livestream and e-commerce through technological advancements like mobile payment, big data, cloud computing, Internet of Things (IoT), smart logistics among many others.
From our engagements with our consumers all over the world, we know that they are spending most of their time consuming information online and on mobile — on social channels like Tiktok, Douyin, Instagram, Little Red Book etc. We know that they are even more inclined to shop online and look for brands to provide omni-channel shopping experiences.
In a fast-changing and highly competitive industry like ours, it is important for brands to be agile and constantly observe and listen to consumers to bring new and meaningful ways that will create closer social and human connections as well as experiences.
How do you appeal to new and younger audiences?
We are constantly pushing boundaries in our content to engage and entertain our younger audiences.
Gen-Z is a very important audience for us as they represent the next generation of prestige beauty and skincare consumers. This generation of consumers have high expectations from brands. For example, while we know the long-term skin transformation power of our products, we also know that for these younger consumers, they can’t wait for years to see results. Our research shows that their top skin concerns are very focused on the now - and that’s what led to our 24/7 Skin Fluctuation Study.
We also know that younger consumers demand for authenticity and real results. Authenticity is at the core of what we believe in at SK-II, and pushes us to find new and meaningful ways to tell the story of Pitera through authentic, intimate experiences of real users.
Another way we’re appealing to younger audiences is in evolving our brand ambassador strategy. We have very long-standing ambassadors such as Haruka Ayase, Tang Wei and Kaori Momoi, who are real living proof of the power of Pitera in 10, 20, even 30 years and beyond. In recent years, we’ve expanded our pool of ambassadors with new Gen-Z ambassadors such as Mina (from Twice) and Ayaka Miyoshi to also show how Pitera works on young skin while engaging with unexpected ambassadors such as beloved Japanese comedian Naomi Watanabe.
Can you share some initiatives in sustainability?
Sustainability is ingrained in our purpose and beliefs as a brand. Beyond helping our consumers achieve crystal clear skin, we are committed to embracing innovation, sustainability, and equality and inclusion as a leading pioneer in the beauty industry. Our brand's purpose to ‘Change Destiny for Skin, Life and Planet, one bottle at a time’, starts at the Shiga Plant where we have made big strides in environmental sustainability.
We actively took steps to build a water-positive future as water consumption was one of the biggest issues we faced. We are proud that the SK-II Shiga Plant now features a pilot effluent water recirculation system that regenerates P&G’s first-ever drinkable grade water. With this, we successfully recirculated 11% of the plant’s water usage and are in the process of expanding this innovation to recirculate 100% of its industrial effluent.
Another initiative is that 100% of the Shiga Plant’s electricity comes from renewable sources, and we host the first-ever on-site solar power plant in P&G Japan. We have also achieved zero construction waste to landfill with our new administrative building by using sustainable materials such as low-carbon steel.
With these interventions, the SK-II Shiga Plant has reduced its Greenhouse Gas emissions by 53% per unit of production since 2010.
What are some of your key innovations in skin diagnostics?
Over the years, we have pioneered discoveries on skin and skin diagnostics and counselling. We are constantly investing in research and innovations to deliver on our consumers’ changing needs and wants.
In 1980, we were the first brand in the world to bring fermentation into skincare with our very first product, the Pitera Essence.
Among other milestones, we were the first brand to define Crystal Clear Skin through a Magic Ring – a diagnostic of human skin based on a proprietary algorithm – and the first brand to measure visible firmness of skin.
Now, we have brought to life our latest, most advanced contactless skin analysis tool – the Mini Magic Scan – which unlocks consumers’ skin age and gives personalised skincare recommendations in just three minutes.
What is the future for SK-II?
My vision is to build SK-II to become an iconic global prestige skincare brand, remembered for making crystal clear skin within reach through Pitera and loved by consumers for years to come.