Q&A: How Samsung Embraced Innovation to Become a Global Master of Brand Marketing

And earn Cannes' Marketer of the Year honors for 2016

Even Samsung's top marketing executives like Younghee Lee admit it wasn't long ago that consumers thought of the company as "boring and monotonous," a geeked-out marketer working with a little-known ad agency affiliate in an electronics world transformed by sexy brands like Apple. Fast-forward to June 25, almost two decades after she joined the Korean electronics giant, and it will be Lee—a stylish, former L'Oréal and Lancôme exec who now runs Samsung's mobile business—not its engineers to accept Samsung's honors as the Cannes Lions' Creative Marketer of the Year.

With good reason, too. Last year, Samsung took home 27 Lions, contributing to an overall historical total of 74 awards (more than any marketer in the last five years) at a marketing organization being transformed by top nontech practitioners and creative powerhouses including Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Wieden + Kennedy. Those shops were recently added to roster agencies like Leo Burnett, 72andSunny and Cheil Worldwide. Lee, evp, global marketing, mobile communications business, recently spoke with Adweek about the changes underway at a company that has not only toppled Apple as the dominant mobile handset brand, but is also now challenging consumers to use their phones with new connected devices like refrigerators and software services. Here's an edited transcript:

Adweek: How has the Samsung brand evolved from a tech-driven engineering company to a consumer-centric lifestyle brand?

Younghee Lee: When I joined Samsung Electronics back in 2007, it was a true tech and innovation company in its DNA. As I entered without an engineering background, it was very difficult to understand all those technological gadgets. So what I've done is to figure out how I can understand and convey the story to consumers in meaningful ways. Our mission should be for the everyday users, not technology for the sake of technology. All the great technology we have had to be translated to consumer language. We've done a lot of research to understand what consumers want and need. That is at the core of our marketing.

How have cultural changes at the company impacted its marketing?

They've had a huge impact in the way our employees engage with and change our marketing beyond our traditional boundaries. This year when we launched our new flagship device, the Galaxy S7, at the event we called "Unpacked," we invited [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg to help make our new smartphone story come alive. That was a true breakthrough idea from our employees and very different from what we've done in the past. We installed 5,000 Gear VR headsets at the event—and at the moment of the product unveil, everyone put on the headset and experienced the product introduction virtually while Mark walked onstage to share his vision of VR with Samsung. This was the first time a mass experience of 5,000 Gear VR headsets had been done and a great example of how we can create excitement with our advanced technology.

What is the consumer perception of Samsung as a brand?

Based on our research, the top words associated with Samsung are "innovation," "technology" and "dynamic." In the brand attitude survey, key attributes are "innovative" and "fast-paced." We are introducing technology in a quick rhythm. Samsung is a huge technology company that's dynamic and appealing to multicultural and multiregional countries, with key consumer perceptions reflecting that.

How do you want your brand to be positioned to consumers?

We are a true innovation company with a bold attitude. Through our technology, we want people to achieve impossible things, and we strive to give people freedom. We're open, not closed; we're democratic … The phone is a gateway to new experiences—together with a watch, together with a tablet, together with a TV, you can have a better experience. We want to be a technology pioneer.

 

How are you migrating from a Korean company to a truly global multinational? How does that change your marketing approach?