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? 

We have a spirit of the "joyful pioneer," of not accepting limits and daring to defy barriers. And we are very open, inclusive and truly multinational. There was a time when we were very well-known as a Korea-based, boring and monotonous engineering company, but not anymore. I don't know if the company changed first with the marketing approach following, or the other way around.

From a marketing communications perspective, how did Samsung overtake Apple as the industry's lead smartphone manufacturer?

We always relentlessly pursue what we think is right in technology. Our communications program is no different. If we think it is right, we pursue it relentlessly. In North America, we were aggressive with our marketing toward competitors—we went at them head on. If you think about the "Fanboy" and "Wall Hugger" (Galaxy S) campaigns and the approach we took there, we tried to be flexible, relevant and bold. The virtues of our brand are engineering, openness, freedom in mindset, purposeful innovation, multiculturalism, vibrancy, being inviting and inclusiveness. My goal is to help our consumers understand our values and support how the brand can be attached to them.

What are Samsung's phone marketing priorities going forward?

My biggest challenge is to obtain more share of mind from millennials. It's crucial for us to keep our Samsung Galaxy brand as a young and fresh mindset. Another focus is to tell the story of how the smartphone is a gateway to a bigger world and galaxy of experiences. You will see a lot of efforts on these priorities going forward.

Why did Samsung conduct a global creative review in 2014, and what did you learn from it? Did it reflect organizational changes within Samsung's marketing department?

Samsung has multiple divisions: mobile, digital appliance, visual display. Periodically our leadership team reviews our agencies in terms of expertise and experience. We have some long-term relationships with our agency partners, but we review to see what we can do better together. As a partner, we try to learn a lot from our multiple agencies and their different expertise. We learned a lot from that (2014 review) process. It's part of our efforts to increase efficiency and be consistent in our communication as a company. It doesn't necessarily mean that we are changing our marketing approach or strategy at all.

What are the high points in Samsung's marketing communications over the past year?

A Fighting Chance is a documentary directed by Morgan Neville, an Academy Award-winning documentary director, featuring Samsung's philosophy of defying complacency. This is a film about having big dreams and the challenges you face in converting those dreams into reality. Personally, I find it inspiring because it's all about possessing the determination to never give up, regardless of what the odds and naysayers say, because that is the only way we progress as humans.

For me, Samsung Galaxy S7's Unpacked was the monumental event of the year. Unpacked has been Samsung's unique product launching platform since 2008 where we bring together around 5,000 global media, clients and partners to provide an exciting new-product experience. This year's event at Mobile World Congress was an especially exciting one with our Gear VRs providing a virtual reality product introduction as Mark Zuckerberg walked onto the stage for his surprise speech with D.J. Koh, Samsung mobile chief. It was probably the biggest "wow" moment in the entire tech industry this year.

Unpacking Samsung is a film we launched prior to Galaxy S7's Unpacked to pay homage to the user-generated phenomena of "unboxing" videos while taking viewers on a journey through Samsung's history of impacting technology and culture. This film "unboxes" some of our most iconic innovations and historic moments. It includes the first phone ever launched, the world's first commercially available watch phone, the world's first 3G call made from Everest and ends with the S6 edge and Gear VR headset. The featured devices are showcased for their respective contributions to everyday life and culture.

Our "Happy New Gear" campaign was themed around the holiday period and aimed to send the biggest holiday card ever using the Samsung Gear S2. You can see the bold, playful, conversational and inviting visual expressions in a series of massive digital out-of-home displays.

The "Look at Me" campaign received a lot of attention at Cannes last year, winning five Lions and underscoring Samsung's consumer-centric strategy.

Studies show that children with autism like to interact with digital devices. So we developed the world's first interactive camera app to help them improve social skills. Using Samsung smart devices, we developed a fun and easy-to-use app to help children with autism interact with people. In collaboration with doctors, professors and app developers, seven missions were created to train the children to make better eye contact and improve their communication skills.

What can we expect from Samsung's next generation of wearable technology? What's the commitment to growing that product category?

Wearables are a key area that we are focusing on, not just for sales but also as a great communications and experience tool. Samsung was the first company to introduce the watch phone in 1998 and smartwatch in 2010. Since then, we have continued to pioneer in the wearables category and hold the largest number of wearable patents. We're committed to constantly looking for ways to intersect technology, content and services to enable consumers to do more and get more out of them.

You've been hiring execs from consumer marketing giants like Procter & Gamble and Unilever in the U.S., Europe and Asia. How are you attracting the best marketing talent to Samsung?

One of the most attractive benefits is that Samsung is still growing and very young in spirit, although we are a very big organization and a market leader. Very talented and experienced marketing experts are enjoying new challenges and trying something never done before at Samsung. I always encourage these challenging spirits [who are] bringing fresh thinking to my team.

On the premium end, Samsung has always done battle with Apple. Now there's increasing pressure from lower-end manufacturers like Huawei, Xiaomi, OPPO and Vivo. How will you compete with them going forward?

The mobile industry has been very dynamic for the past few decades. Being a leader now does not mean that you can sustain that leadership forever. Samsung knows that very well, and that's why we keep our mindset very humble and relentlessly pursue better technology, superior marketing campaigns and more efficient global operations. I respect the brands you mentioned, their commitment and efforts to enter into the global market from several local success stories. We will focus on providing better value to our consumers, the way we have always been … successful. We are always ready and very confident to win.

This story first appeared in the June 13, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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