South Korea is inarguably a world leader when it comes to beauty. It’s one of the world’s most influential and innovative skin care markets, with many recent developments in beauty technology originating from here. South Korean innovations include sheet masks and ampoules, and the market’s also good at coming up with beauty-related tech innovations.
South Korea’s beauty industry has a reputation for using exotic ingredients, such as mushrooms or snail slime, for high-quality standards and safe, trustworthy products. Packaging tends to be innovative and fun and the Korean approach to beauty is to put skin at the heart of any beauty regime and to focus on hydration.
Korean society places a cultural emphasis on self-cultivation, as a sign of self-respect and of respect for those around you. In this conformist Asian society, it’s also socially important to live up to certain physical expectations. Women here spend twice as much on beauty products compared to those in markets such as the US. Korean men are thought to spend more on skincare than in any other market.
These trends make for a strong domestic market, but it’s also a small one. Korean beauty brands are adventurous when it comes to moving overseas and they have large Asian markets to tackle in China and India.
Korea’s been a huge influence on Chinese consumers when it comes to fashion and appearance. Korean beauty products and clothing brands have serious credibility there – in the same way French style has generally been the leader to UK and US audiences. But there’s often tension in Korean-Chinese relations, which is just another reason for Korean brands to not become too dependent on this market.
In one month alone, beauty brands experienced a 25% drop in sales thanks to political tensions between the countries. Cautious Korean brands can’t rely on China too heavily.
South Korea’s beauty industry is heavily supported by the government. With few natural resources, Korea is keen to encourage exports. Korea’s brands have also been helped trade agreements such as the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which enables duty-free import of Korean cosmetics into India.
Korean beauty is now making inroads into the huge Indian market, particularly in the north east and in major cities such as New Delhi Kolkata and Bangalore. Brands such as Innisfree are expanding their reach and planning new physical stores across India.
Korean brands are aggressively targeting the Indian market with expansions and investments, such as PLK International’s purchase of a major stake in Rajshree Empires, a New Delhi-based distribution company.
In a joint venture, the distributor is combining with several top Korean brands to launch an expansion across northern Indian states. With sizeable investments and serious expansion ambitions like this, it’s expected that Korean beauty presence in India will grow to be worth over $4.5 billion by 2020.
India’s attitude to beauty
Like the Chinese consumer, modern Indian beauty buyers are increasingly concerned with making sure the products they buy are ‘natural’. As a marketing term, it’s notoriously tricky to pin down exactly what this means – but ‘natural’ is a key USP for Korean beauty brand behemoth The Face Shop.
Now present in over 30 countries, The Face Shop offers consumers so-called natural products with many botanical ingredients such as fruit, flowers, and seaweed, as well as elements taken from traditional oriental medicine. It’s not just the products themselves that are catching on. Indian consumers are starting to adopt the notoriously rigorous Korean beauty regimes, which can include 11 step routines.
Digital seems to be a key part of the Korean beauty brand strategy. Brands entering the Indian market tend to favour a combined approach that targets offline as well as online sales. The launch of some Korean beauty brands in the Indian market actually led to an overall increase in skincare sales on beauty eCommerce platform Nykaa India.
Korean beauty culture has its dark side – there’s evidence that Korean women’s self-esteem scores related to appearance are lower than those of women in the US, and a high percentage of Koreans have had cosmetic surgery.
There’s no room for political correctness either – the paler your skin, the more attractive you’re seen as being in the Korean market, and there’s a strong emphasis on youthfulness. Job ads routinely demand a photo of the applicant. In a society that values conforming to social norms, it’s often difficult to resist pressure to have cosmetic surgery that’s considered normal.
Indian consumers share with Koreans a preference for pale skin, and many products in both markets boast whitening properties. India’s already a society that discriminates against people with darker skin.
Brands such as Dove that have tried a different and more inclusive approach, encouraging consumers to accept and value their natural appearance, haven’t always found success in Asian markets.
Generally, there’s a preference in India for having good skin and a natural look, rather than using makeup to alter the appearance or conceal flaws. Although India has its own beauty culture, drawing on ancient traditions such as Ayurvedic medicine, Korea’s approach to beauty still resonates with Indian consumers.
The prevailing trends in beauty worldwide are that products should have a natural approach, but this needs to be combined with the conviction that products are from the cutting-edge of scientific innovation. It’s a mix that Korean brands manage brilliantly, and it’s not just India where this approach is catching on.
Korea’s innovative beauty market is ambitious in its growth goals and unafraid to tackle the world’s largest markets.