Markus Strobel

Markus Strobel, president of global skin and personal care at Procter & Gamble, encountered an out-of-the-blue question from a Millennial brand manager during a meeting one day. “Is digital human?” he asked.

Strobel explained: “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Is this just about metrics and numbers and percentages, or is digital human?’ And that question stuck with me — it grabbed and never let me go.”

The executive believes that when one discovers a brand’s humanity, it can transform connections to consumers and the business’ results.

To get to the brand’s humanity, a person must look at mankind’s ancestors and evolutionary biology. “There’s very credible research that humans judge other humans basically on just two questions: What are your intentions toward me? And what is your ability to deliver on these intentions?

“Those two concepts have also been described as warmth and competence. There is a hypothesis out there that this is not only how humans judge other humans, this is also how humans judge brands,” he continued. “The theory is you have to have both…to succeed in today’s marketplace.”

When P&G’s SK-II, from Japan, was struggling with flat sales, a lack of new user growth and an aging user base, Strobel and his team analyzed the brand. “It became clear to us very quickly that we were really good on competence,” he said. “This was what our advertising was about 100 percent of the time — it was a great product, we are better than the other guy, buy us.

“When we asked consumers ‘What do you think our intentions are?’ We expected them to say ‘You’re helping me improve my confidence, you’re going to help me improve my life’ and that kind of thing,” he said. “But no. What women — especially young women — told us is ‘Your only intention, SK-II, is to sell us a s–tload of product. Ouch. That really hurt.”

At that time, SK-II’s average new user’s age was 40-plus.

“Warmth was missing from the brand, and consumers saw us as cold and aloof,” said Strobel, who then went on to create communication deemed game-changing for the beauty industry.

P&G executives talked with women in Asia about their lives, what moves them, their hopes, dreams and expectations. They felt trapped in a box of expectations, from society and parents. “They’re almost crumbling under the pressure,” Strobel said.

The idea was for SK-II to stop being a brand perceived as wanting to sell more products and to become one giving those women a voice. “Wouldn’t that be breakthrough?” he said.

In China, Asia’s largest market, there is the phenomenon of “leftover women,” a derogatory term for those in their mid-20s who have not yet been married. Often, these women’s parents go to a “marriage market” to find them a husband.

“These are well-educated young women, very confident, in great careers, but they have such a respect for their parents, they feel this enormous pressure,” Strobel said.

P&G created a digital, documentary-style campaign, in which the women told about their lives, and their photos with positive messages were hung in a marriage market, causing a shift in the parents’ and society’s thinking.

One mother in the campaign said: “The ‘leftover men’ need to try harder.”

“This video changed everything for SK-II in China,” Strobel said. “The responses were unbelievable, and they brought [SK-II] from a big, old-fashioned Japanese brand with great confidence but no warmth to a brand that’s in touch with young Chinese consumers.

“This is where the deep human insight and digital brand-building, the digital breakthrough come together to create some real magic,” he added. “This kind of campaign can only exist in the digital world, because it needs to be shared with other people. It needs to be commented on, engaged on.”

The campaign was watched by hundreds of millions of people and garnered press coverage in 60 countries. “Human insight creates amplitude,” said Strobel, who said that beauty marketing has to be local, but if it’s also really human it can travel around the globe.

SK-II is now a top-three prestige skin-care brand in China, with approximately 90 percent of its multibillion-dollar business in Asia.

That was an example of how insight traveled from east to west, but Strobel gave another example that resonated from west to east.

“We have a nicely growing U.S. business on SK-II, but it’s not huge,” he said. “The problem we have been facing all along is [regarding] our hero product, the Facial Treatment Essence, also called Pietera Essence. In America, nobody knows what an essence is.”

That proved difficult to explain. So P&G sat down with U.S. consumers to learn their insights. “[With skin care], consumers often miss the lightheartedness they get in makeup, in hair color,” Strobel said.

P&G tried to infuse humor into the SK-II brand, with a fun-filled digital series aimed at the U.S. market that features James Corden and Chloë Grace Moretz. In the two-and-a-half months since the last episode aired, search queries for Pietera Essence in the country have shot up 89 percent, and same-store sales of the product there gained 64 percent.

“It’s a runaway success in Asia,” said Strobel, of the campaign, explaining there have been record views in Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. “It tells me the insight is human.

“If you go back to the question ‘Is digital human?’ It is — or at least it could be,” he said. “At a very, very minimum, it should be. I think this is what the power of digital brand-building is. It’s not necessarily the latest technology. We all have these great technologies at our fingertips…but it’s really what you make out of the technology, and how you use the technology to really create human connections. It’s all about one-to-one relationships with your consumers, eventually. And that’s really going to make the difference.

“What has this gained for us on SK-II or in P&G Beauty?” asked Strobel. “No longer do consumers tell us you’re trying to sell us a s–tload of products. They talk to us, we listen to them. We really respond, and that’s the best part. More and more of our beauty brands are now asking themselves the question ‘Is digital human?’ and trying to find humanity.”

Olay in the U.S., for instance, conceived a new campaign, called Face Anything, which is focused on connections with consumers and has caused dramatic rise of household penetration. “So this really works,” Strobel said.

Whether digital is human and how can humanity be found “[are questions] all of us in beauty can consider,” he said.

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