It’s hard to exaggerate how influential the South Korean industry has been on the global beauty market, particularly in the last decade. But times change, and the recent disruption of COVID may have significantly altered the way many consumers approach their beauty routine. Is this global behaviour change likely to affect the popularity of Korean beauty approaches in global markets?
South Korean beauty has perhaps best been known for its somewhat demanding skin regimens and high involvement in the skincare process. The most notorious of these was the 10-step routine that women (and perhaps men too) were invited to undergo on a daily basis. Korean beauty tends to focus on improving the skin, and offer products that are pretty unique to Korea such as essences and ampoules.
There’s evidence already that consumer minds have turned towards skincare during the last 18 months. With more time spent at home, consumers had more time to think about skincare (and perhaps less need to apply and remove makeup). Influential consumers – journalists and people that write and read beauty blogs – may have been working from home and socialising less. There was less need to wear makeup and perhaps more time to do a facemask.
Above all, consumers were bored. Skincare needs may also have changed. Some consumers have reported skin problems caused by wearing a face mask all day, others have seen a different version of themselves reflected in the harsh blue glare of a video call.
In theory, this renewed focus on skincare should align well with the skin-first values touted by the South Korean beauty industry. But consumer values have changed during the turmoil of the last 18 months. A new trend has started to emerge of consumers opting for a more slimline beauty regimen with fewer products and ingredients. It’s been dubbed ‘skinimalism’.
A pared-down approach
Skinimalism sees consumers opting to use a smaller number of products (no 10-step routine here) and more flexible ones. It’s about approaches such as using a hybrid toner and moisturiser or opting for a moisturiser for both day and night rather than separate ones for each time of the day. Another example is using BB creams so you don’t need to use separate foundation and moisturiser.
Consumers are also embracing moisturisers that work alone without the need for a serum, toner or essence. It’s a much more stripped-back approach to beauty. Essentially, consumers are asking for their products to work harder so they don’t have to.
Some beauty brands have also emerged that take skinimalism further – they only offer a single product. A cult product known only as The Cream might cost a fortune but it promises to tackle fine lines, dehydration, redness, pore size and loss of skin elasticity – something that other beauty lines claim to need a shelf full of ingredients to achieve.
Whether this new consumer trend is really a threat to the effort-intense South Korean approach remains to be seen. Skinimalism rides on the back of a number of consumer concerns. It chimes well with an anti-capitalist, anti-consumption mood that’s taking hold as very real concerns about the environment and social justice become increasingly important to consumers.
It’s also an approach that addresses consumers’ concerns about sustainability. Korean beauty products tend to focus on packaging and tend to use plastic, which is increasingly distasteful to consumers. Consumers are trying to buy less, even if they can afford to buy more.
Some consumers are also reporting better effects from a streamlined beauty regime as their complicated routines weren’t helping their skin. And as consumers start to resume life outside the home, it seems natural to simplify the beauty routines that they had more time for when based at home.
Of course, with housing costs at an all-time high in many developed countries, many consumers just don’t have the shelf space for a dozen products. Skinimalism seems to be have become an organic byproduct of the socioeconomic shift faced by some consumers over the last few years.
The Impact of Skinimalism on the industry
There’s a great cultural emphasis on appearance in Korea, with high rates of plastic surgery and a focus on skincare and preserving the looks. Visiting facialists is normalised, it’s culturally acceptable for men to wear makeup and use face masks.
People start a regular beauty routine while still young, and it’s seen as part of self-care rather than vanity. A thriving hashtag on social media encourages people to post their “one sheet mask a day” selfies. It’s a high-maintenance approach to beauty and personal care.
Even in this beauty-focused society there is growing backlash against this maximalist approach. Whilst skinimalism isn’t quite the rage here just yet, younger Korean consumers have started to take some interest in a simpler approach.
They call this ‘skip care’, and it sees consumers identifying the real essential ingredients in their preferred beauty products and cutting everything else out. Fewer products, without loss of results. In the West, this approach to skinimalism is used by austere skincare brand The Ordinary which offers a very pared-back range of products focused on the active ingredients they contain.
Whilst these new minimalist approaches may seem at odds with Korean beauty culture, the Korean industry is nothing but innovative. It’s likely these new trends will be picked up and embraced by brands in this market.
Korean culture remains conservative and it’s going to take some time for people, particularly women, to challenge the prevailing expectations on beauty care. The truth is that the divide is likely to be along generational lines. It’s younger consumers that are questioning the demands of beauty culture and presenting a new set of values, with a focus on anti-consumerism and sustainability.
A tailored approach
Although South Korea has managed to spread its values and practices to a wider audience, Korean beauty has only taken off because it has managed to align itself with Western beauty expectations. Western consumers, particularly younger ones, have embraced the concept of a beauty routine that’s about self-care and self-nurture.
The innovative approach of Korean brands has chimed with consumers that wanted a fun modern experience. The huge range of choices also helps consumers craft a personalised routine – we know personalisation is also a key area of interest for consumers.
The global importance of South Korean beauty really started to take off around 2011 when the US started to import Korean beauty products in earnest. The products offered great novelty, with ingredients such as bee venom and snail slime, and often met consumers at a good price point.
They marketed themselves using science-based claims but at a more affordable price point than products from markets such as France. At the same time, they were more exciting than the cheaper products which were then available on the market.
Whilst Korean beauty has enjoyed a recent golden age, the recent disruption (and intensely, globally competitive beauty industry) could mean it’s knocked off its dominant perch anytime soon.
Winners and losers
Unsurprisingly, at-home treatments such as hair and face masks proved popular through 2020 and the first half of 2021. Consumers also signed up for virtual consultations and workshops in greater numbers, with sessions such as lessons on facial massage proving popular. With more time at home consumers also had time to try out new beauty tech, some of which align with consumer interests in sustainability.
Some categories of beauty products have really flourished over the last 18 months. Sales of anti-acne serums are up over 50%, possibly as mask-wearing exacerbated skin concerns or because consumers were tackling problems they’d previously concealed with makeup.
Lash and brow conditioning serums were also popular as consumers made the most of the visible part of their faces. Anti-bacterial products sold well as hygiene remained at the forefront of consumer minds. Hydration seemed to be unusually popular with customers, possibly because of dry air at home.
Consumers also raced to get beauty treatments at the end of periods of lockdown. Nail and waxing salons, and botox and peel clinics all reported a flurry of bookings. There’s also been talk of a post-lockdown boom in cosmetic surgical procedures as consumers feel able to visit surgical clinics again.
Makeup sales were significantly down through 2020, particularly lipstick sales. Consumers did however invest in those parts of their face that were visible in public, with spending on lash and brow treatments still popular.
With consumers washing their hands more often and using hand sanitiser, there was also a boost for the hand care market. Global sales of hand creams and lotions were expected to grow 11% from 2020 to 2021. Many brands launched hand care products for the first time, including the popular online brand Glossier.
Consumer research behaviours also changed during the pandemic. For starters, they may not have had the same level of access to the places where they would normally buy beauty products.
Consumers that worked from home, or faced employment disruption, may not have been in major shopping hubs as regularly. Non-essential shops may have been closed or just been less appealing.
Consumers were more likely to have the opportunity to research products online at home, and less opportunity to discuss products with friends and hear word-of-mouth recommendations. As a result, consumers may have broken old purchasing habits and gone for completely new products or even new regimes.
Amazon enters the market
There’s another major disruptive force on the global stage other than Skinimalism – Amazon has entered the beauty market. All the aforementioned forces – particularly consumers bored at home with time to research products online – have converged to make it a great time for the giant marketplace to penetrate this space.
Some brands have embraced this new reality and started selling on the platform. That’s not something that aligns with everyone’s brand strategy but it certainly has worked for some vendors.
One natural skincare brand, S. W. Basics withdrew from major US retailer Target in order to sell products exclusively on either its own website or on Amazon. Their argument? Amazon is simply the most effective at getting products to customers.
With customers embracing Amazon Prime in record numbers during 2020, Amazon is increasingly the key place where conversion takes place. The marketplace isn’t immune to logistical problems but it’s more resilient than many competitors, meaning some brands have simply found it more logistically reliable than rivals.
Brands now seem to feel that there’s no longer a stigma about selling via Amazon and that it’s not seen as a discount retailer in quite the same way as before. Several significant new ranges have launched exclusively on the platform, including Lady Gaga’s debut beauty line.
In a practical sense, it made sense to do big launches online anyway as consumers may not have been in physical stores as often. Although many brands experienced a rise in digital demand during the pandemic, not all were prepared for it and many faced logistical difficulties.
The social and economic shocks of the last 18 months may have changed consumer mindsets for good. Consumer values may no longer be aligned with the long-standing beauty values of South Korean culture. But this remains a highly innovative market.
Korean R&D is fast-paced and with intense competition, we’re likely to see rapid accommodation of new consumer interest in a regimen centred to skinimalism. If consumers want fewer products but expect them to perform to an even higher standard, it’s likely South Korea is the place best suited to rise to the challenge.