From Silly to Serious, SK-II’s Cannes-Debuted Ads Show the Brand’s Broad Range

The P&G-owned skincare company is doing everything from documentaries to funny, music-filled videos

The Japanese-born skincare brand is debuting two campaigns this week at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. SK-II
Headshot of Diana Pearl

SK-II is further proving its advertising has quite the creative range with the two new campaigns starring Katie Couric and John Legend.

The Japanese-born skincare brand, which has been owned by Procter & Gamble since 1991, is debuting the campaigns this week at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity during a panel with P&G chief brand officer Marc Pritchard, Couric and Legend on stage at the Palais.

While the two spots may premiere in the same venue, they couldn’t be more different. “Pitera Masterclass” features Legend, James Corden, Naomi Watanabe and Tang Wei in a comedic spot showcasing the benefits of pitera, a yeast extract in many SK-II products; it’s the more light-hearted campaign touting product benefits with a funny flair (and a killer soundrack, thanks to the tune “Oh Pitera,” which Legend wrote for the spot). Meanwhile, veteran journalist Couric leads “Timelines,” which takes a documentary-style approach and barely touches on the products at all, instead focusing on pressures women experience surrounding “milestones” like getting married or having children, particularly in Asia.

Doing docuseries has been a frequent component of SK-II’s advertising. Take its ongoing “Change Destiny” campaign, which, like Timelines, focuses on combatting stigmas and gender norms women face, particularly in SK-II’s most popular markets.

“As a brand, first and foremost, we need to be human,” said Sandeep Seth, the global CEO of SK-II. “But sometimes, brands tend to take themselves too seriously, and all they do is talk about benefits—what we do and how we can change your life versus being a human with a point of view and connecting with the consumers at very, very warm and human level. We needed to have a point of view, and that point of view was brought to light through this ‘Change Destiny’ campaign.”

"As a brand, first and foremost, we need to be human."
-Sandeep Seth, global CEO, SK-II

Couric herself said seeing SK-II’s past work through its “Change Destiny” campaign helped her understand the power of a branded film. “To me, [‘Timelines’] was illustrative of the power of a brand embracing a controversial topic and and creating an environment where conversations could take place and cultural change could actually happen,” she said. “None of these things happen overnight, but I think the fact that a short film can really move people to talk about things that are difficult to talk about inspired me a lot.”

Seth said associating the brand with something greater than the product itself is important, but it’s not the brand’s whole story. “At the end, people do want to know what you do as a brand, so there is a role of the product and the benefit there,” he said. The challenge in the product-led marketing category is make it stand out in a crowded space.

“In the category, everyone is shouting the same type of benefits,” said Seth. “We said, ‘How do we elevate our products and stories to that level of entertainment and storytelling, and make it much more human in that way?’ And humor really [makes] the brand much more human in that sense.”

The “Pitera Masterclass” campaign hits that humor note, with Legend singing “Oh Pitera” as Corden, Watanabe and Wei debate if the tune is the right fit for an upcoming SK-II campaign. “Humor really meets the brand much more human,” said Seth. “Sometimes, [we] can even have a bit of fun at our own expense versus taking it extremely seriously.”

Legend wanted to be a part of the spot because of its unique nature.

“The whole point is to have a little more fun with that imagery because I think they’ve been known to be a bit more serious and they’re advertising in the past,” said Legend. “It was smart for SK-II to bring in James Corden. He’s an unorthodox choice for them, given what they’ve done in the past, but I think that that’s what makes it even cooler: that they did something unexpected, did something funny and I think it’ll make it more memorable.”

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.