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Global SK-II CEO Sue Kyung Lee on how Pitera's miracle story stays relevant today

·Lifestyle Editor
Updated ·10-min read

You’ve heard of how SK-II harnessed the healing power of yeast in the form of the brand’s bestselling Pitera essence. And how can we possibly miss our favourite celebrities across the globe, such as Japanese comedian Naomi Watanabe, Chinese actress Tang Wei and Hollywood’s Chloe Moretz and Cate Blanchett, singing praises about SK-II?

So how has this one ingredient managed to continue to capture the hearts of so many people for more than four decades? In an exclusive chat with Yahoo Shopping, SK-II's Global CEO, Ms Sue Kyung Lee, shared about her deep consumer knowledge, game-changing approach to brand building, passion for people, and the global-scale World Pitera Day in July this year. Also, in a candid moment, her challenges as a female leader in a male-dominated company, but also one who believes in "the power of quiet".

SK-II's bestselling products. PHOTO: SK-II
SK-II's bestselling products. PHOTO: SK-II

Yahoo Shopping: How has SK-II remained a market leader in the beauty industry with just one main ingredient all these years?

Global SK-II CEO Sue Kyung Lee: For over 40 years, Pitera has remained at the heart of SK-II. While the ingredient has remained unchanged, it has been the key to millions of skin transformations to Crystal Clear Skin worldwide. At the same time, our scientists have continued to pioneer new scientific discoveries and skincare innovations that address our consumers' changing skincare concerns and needs. For example, we were one of the first brands to bring fermentation into skincare with our very first product the Pitera Essence in 1980.

Since then, SK-II has partnered with the world's top scientists and dermatologists, conducting extensive research studies to uncover new first-in-the-world discoveries in skin science and skin health. This is from our ground-breaking 10-year Akita study to our latest 24/7 Skin Fluctuation Study, which we unveiled at the first-ever SK-II World Pitera Day. As an exclusive ingredient to SK-II, every drop of Pitera and every single Pitera product is produced in our one and only SK-II Shiga Plant in Japan. This has given us a unique competitive edge in the skincare industry.

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What are the key strategies for staying relevant to new audiences in such a competitive industry?

Our consumer is at the centre of everything that we do. We are constantly listening, addressing and engaging her. We're also looking to raise the bar for our purpose – Change Destiny. Our recently launched contactless skin analysis tool, the Mini Magic Scan, an industry-first skincare counselling experience, is powered by facial recognition and artificial intelligence to provide our consumers with personalised skin analysis and recommendations in just three minutes.

SK-II's Mini Magic Scan. PHOTO: SK-II
SK-II's Mini Magic Scan. PHOTO: SK-II

Can you share some positive changes you plan to inject into the company and brand?

As we like to say in SK-II, “Destiny is not a matter of chance, It’s a matter of choice.” Change is the only constant these days. 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 the fundamental 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 in harnessing and connecting consumer knowledge and data to serve our consumers with our innovations, be it offline or online. I also hope to positively inspire and pave the way for young female leaders in the company, for them to see that it is attainable to become a Global CEO even if you are female.

Have you experienced any challenges based on your nationality or gender in the role of such a big Japanese brand? And how did you overcome them?

Challenges always exist for female leaders since we must overcome many societal limitations and expectations wherever we are. This is why the first choice I made early on in my career was working toward becoming a leader that is both effective and genuine, rather than letting stereotypes define me. This served as a solid foundation for me when I helmed SK-II from this February onwards. I'm not naturally a loud person – I do not enjoy talking much or being at the centre of attention. However, I questioned myself, if I wasn't loud in meetings, didn't talk disproportionately at important meetings, and avoided networking, could I succeed, especially as a female leader? However, I learned over time that being a quiet leader has its strengths too.

As someone who believes in the power of quiet, I am more confident in my ability to lead as a listener who gives everyone a chance to contribute, displays confidence, and can keep her cool in times of pressure. I look forward to seeing the industry open up more to female leadership, where women can overcome these challenges. As a female leader, I am passionate about helping other women break through gender barriers. One initiative I'm very proud of driving was growing female representation at the P&G APAC managerial level to 50 per cent from 2018 to 2019.

What was the World Pitera Day all about?

World Pitera Day is SK-II's first global large-scale event dedicated to our iconic Pitera. It is a recognition and celebration of the miracles that Pitera has brought and will continue to bring to the world, from its origins to its latest scientific discoveries and innovation. On World Pitera Day, we also premiered our latest and boldest Pitera stress test yet, with SK-II Late Night Portraits featuring our beloved brand ambassadors, including Mina from global girl group Twice, actress Ayaka Miyoshi, comedian Naomi Watanabe and our longest-standing ambassador Kaori Momoi bravely taking on a bare-skinned photoshoot at their worst moment of the day.

Celebrities participating in SK-II's Late Night Series Portraits. PHOTO: SK-II
Celebrities participating in SK-II's Late Night Series Portraits. PHOTO: SK-II

Can you share with us more on the “Late Night Portraits” campaign?

SK-II Late Night Portraits is based on the ground-breaking findings from our latest Pitera 24/7 Skin Fluctuation Study. The study conducted 24/7 over six weeks uncovered that women's skin conditions –including texture, pores, redness, dullness, hydration and barrier function – fluctuate significantly within a single day, even looking up to almost 10 years older due to multiple daily stressors. And her worst time of the day? Late at night.

The study also discovered that with regular use of Pitera and Pitera Essence as a skincare essential, her skin fluctuations were dramatically stabilised and revealed Crystal Clear Skin. With this as our inspiration, “Late Night Portraits” was conceived as our boldest Pitera stress test yet, to see the power of Pitera in stabilising daily skin fluctuations. We challenged our celebrity brand ambassadors to be photographed bare-skinned at their worst moment of the day, and they stepped up to the task. In this campaign, the brand ambassadors had their skin prepped with nothing but Pitera for the shoot and were photographed bare-skinned. The campaign demonstrated the power of Pitera, and how their skin remained Crystal Clear even at their worst moments.

What’s your personal journey with Pitera like?

I’ve been a loyal user of SK-II and Pitera for years. I always tell my team about how much the brand means to me. Coincidentally, my name in Korean also holds a close affiliation to water – it means ‘shine by the water’, which is similar to how we refer to Pitera Essence as ‘miracle water’.

What’s your beauty routine like?

I like keeping my routine to a few things my skin needs. So I tend to reach for products that replenish, strengthen, and protect my skin barrier from environmental stressors. The Pitera Essence is my skincare essential, and I use it day and night – and sometimes even in the middle of the day when my skin needs a little perk-me-up! After the PITERA Essence, I use the GenOptics Aura Essence to address skin dullness and end with the SK-II Skinpower Airy Milky Lotion. When I was living in China, I used the richer Skinpower cream, but I have switched to the lightweight Airy Milky Lotion since moving to Singapore. It gives me the same multi-firming benefits while absorbing quickly into my skin without any stickiness, even in the heat and humidity.

Which are your top 5 favourite SK-II products and why?

Of course, the Pitera Essence is on top of the list as it is my #1 skincare essential to keep my skin crystal clear and stabilised throughout the day. With over 90 per cent Pitera, it is nicknamed “Miracle Water” for a good reason! I am also a big fan and user of our SK-II Skinpower Airy Milky Lotion, which I have used daily since living in Singapore to moisturise and firm up my skin.

When travelling to colder and dry climates, I switch to the SK-II Skinpower Cream, which has a thicker texture to keep the moisture sealed in. For addressing skin dullness, I love our #1 brightening essence, the SK-II GenOptics Aura Essence, with Pitera and GenOptics Aura Technology's power to reduce 'anti-aura' parameters that are both visible on the skin's surface and invisible within the skin's layers, to unleash the skin's inner radiance. I also love our SK-II Facial Treatment Mask. A single sheet of the Facial Treatment Mask contains almost the equivalent of one full bottle of serum – and it's my go-to whenever my skin needs extra care, or when I need to prepare for a big occasion.

SK-II Pitera Essence, 230ml

Facial Treatment Essence. PHOTO: SK-II
Facial Treatment Essence. PHOTO: SK-II

SK-II Skinpower Airy Milky Lotion, 50g

SK-II Skinpower Airy Milky Lotion. PHOTO: SK-II
SK-II Skinpower Airy Milky Lotion. PHOTO: SK-II

SK-II GenOptics Aura Essence, 30ml

SK-II GenOptics Aura Essence. PHOTO: SK-II
SK-II GenOptics Aura Essence. PHOTO: SK-II

SK-II Skinpower Cream, 80g

SK-II Skinpower Cream. PHOTO: SK-II
SK-II Skinpower Cream. PHOTO: SK-II

SK-II Facial Treatment Mask

SK-II Facial Treatment Mask. PHOTO: SK-II
SK-II Facial Treatment Mask. PHOTO: SK-II

Any beauty tips to share with Yahoo readers?

At SK-II, we like to say "less is more". In a time where beauty means more time, more steps, more effort, and more money, we know you can achieve beauty with less by focusing only on what your skin essentially needs. To the younger readers, my advice is to start consciously caring for your skin as early as in your twenties or even before by investing in essentials to maintain good skin condition as you age.

What would your advice be for those new to SK-II, and which SK-II products should they start with?

For starters, I would recommend them to start with our signature best-seller, the Pitera Essence. It has been nicknamed "miracle water" because it contains over 90 per cent Pitera and contains over 50 micro-nutrients like vitamins, amino acids, and organic acids. Pitera resembles the skin’s Natural Moisturising Factors, which is why Pitera penetrates quickly and deeply into the skin to provide inner skin hydration and strengthen the skin's barrier function to protect against external stressors. The Pitera Essence is formulated for all skin types and can address multiple skin concerns such as dryness, dullness, texture (pores, fine lines), and firmness. I would also recommend our #1 brightening essence - the GenOptics Aura Essence for those concerned with skin dullness. For those concerned with skin firmness, I suggest they try our multi-awarded Skinpower Cream or Airy Milky Lotion.

More about CEO Sue Kyung Lee

Global SK-II CEO Sue Kyung Lee. PHOTO: SK-II
Global SK-II CEO Sue Kyung Lee. PHOTO: SK-II

As one of the few Asian women leaders in P&G, Sue Kyung Lee is a champion and role model of Diversity & Inclusion and female empowerment. Since helming the role of Global SK-II CEO in February this year, Sue Kyung Lee has initiated several positive changes, especially regarding women's representation at the management level. She is also the first female Korean executive in Proctor & Gamble (P&G) Korea.

She is also known as the leader in which "Everything she touches turns to gold", thanks to her track record of over 25 years of experience in the company. Under her leadership, Olay and Safeguard Greater China grew to become the most prominent and fastest growth engine of P&G Skin and Personal Care portfolio, P&G Korea emerged as the fastest growing market in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region and Head & Shoulders took the Number 1 spot for an anti-dandruff shampoo brand in the APAC region.

Yahoo Shopping Southeast Asia
Yahoo Shopping Southeast Asia
Originally published