H is for house, hippo, handwashing: The Singaporean heading Lifebuoy is helping to fight COVID-19 around the world
More than just selling soaps and hand sanitisers, Lifebuoy’s global lead Poh Khim Yin has been playing a pivotal role in educating people around the world about the importance of keeping their hands clean during a pandemic. CNA Women speaks to the only Singaporean in Unilever to lead a brand globally.
Many of us probably have less-than-pleasant memories of the pandemic, such as having to endure lockdowns or dealing with travel restrictions. But there are positives too, as Poh Khim Yin has discovered.
One of the biggest surprises is that her two young children are now very conscientious about keeping their hands clean.
Poh, the global lead for hygiene and soap brand Lifebuoy, said: “In Singapore, the schools have really taught the kids well. When my younger son returns from school, he will tell me things like how there are germs everywhere. And he takes proactive steps to wash his hands, especially when he comes in from the outside.”
SPREADING AWARENESS ABOUT HYGIENE
As someone in the business of selling soap, this observation helped to drive home the importance of the work she has been doing, especially through the course of the pandemic.
The Unilever-owned Lifebuoy, which is ranked as the fourth most consumed brand in the world according to Kantar, has been playing a proactive role in spreading awareness of the importance of hand hygiene and other pandemic safety measures, such as getting vaccinated and wearing masks, especially in more rural parts of the world. (Fun fact: The brand was launched in 1894 in the midst of a cholera outbreak.)
Poh joined Unilever in 2006 where she worked on different brand portfolios before becoming the global brand director for Lifebuoy in 2010. This July, she assumed the role of global lead of Lifebuoy, which essentially means she runs the brand worldwide.
One of her key goals is to create long-term strategies that are beneficial for communities and the planet. Inspired by the “stickiness” of habits when they are inculcated in young children, she spearheaded a campaign called H for Handwashing.
“Kids learn the alphabet by reciting phrases like H for house or H for hippos, so we are trying to work with governments to change the curriculum to teach kids that H is for handwashing,” she explained.
“We are trying to teach kids from a very young age that this is a very important habit that you need to stick with for life.”
Under her stewardship, the team has partnered with governments and NGOs including UNICEF, Save The Children, and Oxfam to spread the word. The campaign reached 25 million consumers, educators and children in 2021.
HEALTHCARE FOR UNDERSERVED COMMUNITIES IN A PANDEMIC
In a bid to provide greater access to healthcare among underserved communities, she also spearheaded the brand’s telehealth initiative by providing free doctor consultations and healthcare advice via telehealth services.
The service, which has helped some 300 million people during the height of the pandemic, is currently available in five Asian countries – India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam. Individuals can access the free telehealth service by calling the number or scanning the QR code from any of Lifebuoy’s packaging and commercials.
Access to digital healthcare is not just for the pandemic, she noted. It can also help to bridge the healthcare gap in other situations such as the monsoon season, which marks the onset of tropical diseases and could lead to a surge in breeding grounds for other diseases.
“Lifebuoy’s core mission has always been about working with communities to elevate hygiene and health levels. As the monsoon picks up, gaining access to telehealth can be a pivotal moment for many, especially those living in remote communities where healthcare is not easily accessible,” she said.
KEEPING CONNECTED IN A PANDEMIC
The widespread adoption of digital technology has also been a boon in keeping the Lifebuoy team of some 170 individuals located all around the globe closely connected.
One way they do so is via a WhatsApp chat where everyone can contribute ideas and share local insights to make launches and campaigns more relevant to local markets, she said.
For example, in Indonesia, the Lifebuoy team engaged a rapper to spread the word about hand hygiene, while in India, a team member suggested leveraging on an iconic Lifebuoy ditty to choreograph a “handwash dance”.
Even consumer research has evolved, Poh observed. “In 2010, I used to travel to remote regions in the north of India where we really had to traverse rough roads and long distances to visit consumers at home and listen to what they have to say.
“Today, they are just a call away and everybody is very comfortable about it. I think COVID-19 has really accelerated this behaviour,” she said.
ALWAYS LOOKING OUTWARDS
What has remained unchanged though, is Poh’s curiosity about the world, a trait which she attributes to her upbringing in Singapore.
“Because we are brought up in an environment where we are aware that Singapore is very small, it has taught me the willingness to look outwards in order to gain the best possible insights. This is why we tend to ask more questions and dig deeper,” she observed.
“For example, it really interests and excites me when I meet rural consumers because I do not live in that world but I am curious about what their day-to-day life is like and what inspires them. I think it is this constant questioning that shapes us into good leaders.”
In fact, it is a personal passion of hers to motivate more Singaporeans to step up to the leadership plate. “On a relative scale, I would say a lot of Singaporeans are more introverted, hence it does take awareness for introverts to do well at a level that you would imagine is more suited to an extrovert,” said Poh, who is currently the only Singaporean in Unilever to hold a global lead position.
But at the same time, Singaporeans are often taught to excel from a young age – and they can use this to their advantage in the workplace, she pointed out. “We have lived in a pretty competitive environment from our school days yet we are also taught to be humble – it is about the doing, not the talking,” she said.
Her advice is to lean into this trait and to use it as a stepping stone in one’s career path. “This is a strength that a lot of organisations value so build that confidence to strive for more international exposure,” she said.
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