The South Korean retail market is fast expanding, with its beauty sector outstripping Paris, New York and London year on year. Salomé Bakpa discusses why…
Although the first wave of Korean beauty brands hit America five years ago with major bricks-and-mortar stores like Urban Outfitters and Sephora offering a slew of Korean products for the masses, the UK and much of Europe has sadly been lagging behind.
It’s possible to find K-Beauty products in the UK from websites such as koreankosmetics.com and cultbeauty.com (and, of course, eBay), but rarely over the counter. Our research trips to Seoul and our work with the region’s major beauty giant, Amore Pacific, have shown us first-hand just how innovative, fun and exciting K-Beauty is.
The products are seriously good
Products as steeped in time-honoured traditions and organic ingredients as they are in science and technical prowess, and a nation of impossibly glowing people to imply it all works… when it comes to beauty, Korea doesn’t so much reinvent the wheel as create a whole new mode of transport.
Western companies have adopted certain Korean-made hero products – most of us will be very familiar with BB creams, cushion compacts and sheet masks – but there are so many more that make the miracle-in-a-jar formulas of our familiar brands look a tad passé. Where these brands really excel is with their formulas that utilise wonderfully unlikely ingredients such as horse oil, starfish extract, egg whites and donkey milk – and a heavy dose of ginseng is often thrown in for good measure.
Alexia Inge, co-founder of e-commerce store cultbeauty.co.uk says, “Korean skincare tends to have an innovative use of natural ingredients, especially those indigenous to Asia that help address skincare needs in powerful and effective ways without harsh chemicals.” These ingredients will often be used as the base for formulas, giving Korean products markedly different results to their water-based Western counterparts. It kind of makes sense that the silkiest of serums is built from slithery snail fermentation rather than ubiquitous H2O, no?
Korean apothecaries are also masters of texture-play, conjuring up liquids that transform into solids, luxurious goops that mould into rubbery salves and gels that vanish into the skin to leave behind a plump, moisturised surface.
And it doesn’t stop there. When it comes to corrective makeup, South Korean beauty brands have a novel approach to colour, using sage greens, lavenders and rose pinks to conceal dark spots, under-eye shading and blemishes rather than regular fleshy hues. Proven to be effective at neutralising the wealth of pigments found in every skin tone, this technique has been adopted by the likes of Bobbi Brown and Yves Saint Laurent.
The island of Jeju (a.k.a the beauty industry’s mecca, and the globe’s most deserving UNESCO world heritage site) is a mineral-rich, volcanic and lush island off the coast of South Korea that gives the country its edge in the skincare game. The unusually warm yet windy climate produces a diverse and unique plant life that’s packed with antioxidants.
Products made on Jeju Island using home-grown ingredients are synonymous with quality, luxury and above all great skin. In fact, Jeju Island is so well regarded that Amore Pacific’s entire Innisfree range is centered on the ‘natural benefits’ of Jeju. Sarah Lee, co-founder of e-commerce site glowrecipe.com says, “The ‘made in Jeju’ stamp is a key purchase criteria for Korean women”.
It’s definitely time women in the UK were exposed to the power of Jeju.
The drive for perfection
It’s easy to make the case that it’s a strong, perfectionist culture that’s driving the K-Beauty industry forward. Korea has impossibly high aesthetic standards – it recently overtook Brazil as the plastic surgery capital of the world with the highest percentage of surgeries performed per capita anywhere – luckily I already possess the coveted aegyo-sal (under-eye bags), and do not require any surgery…heh.
I love this anecdote from a leading Korean aesthetician. A client walked in with flawless, radiant skin that could not possibly have been any better, but when she sat down she said: “I know I have perfect skin, but I want it to look slightly more translucent and porcelain like.” At that, the aesthetician threw up his hands and exclaimed “I give up! Korean women have standards that are impossible to meet.”
With customers demanding a superhuman level of perfection, is it any wonder the rate of innovation is so staggering?
Furthermore, South Korean women are savvy shoppers that expect the utmost results, cost efficiency and engaging retail experiences.
They also spend more money on beauty products than women in any other country, even a whopping seven times more than American women. This creates a competitive market where brands are constantly jostling to be the best.
The power of design
The way Korean products are packaged really is something to behold. Masks shaped like sleeping babies’ faces, compacts moulded like kittens and hair rollers sculpted into strawberries have become the norm, in part due to the brutal social media culture. Alicia Yoon, founder of e-commerce platform peachandlily.com says, “Many brands have told us that because consumers’ expectations and thoughts about brands/products are so quickly shared with each other, they constantly innovate to create more memorable and popular beauty products.”
Insta-friendly packaging is essential, making the products not just desirable but also instantly shareable. Packaging needs to reflect the creativity of the product inside – fun and playful seems to win hands down over serious and science heavy.
When it comes to retail design Seoul has unequivocally stolen the limelight from Tokyo, with concept stores like the dreamy Style Nanda Pink Hotel and eclectic Queen Mama Market are considered some of the best in the world. Read our round-up of the best stores in Asia here.
Most importantly, Korea has a 360° approach to brand and store design. Gregor Jackson of Retail Focus says, “For many Korean brands, design is at the heart of the organisation. It’s not treated as aesthetic layering, but something integral to the brand and how it thinks, behaves, and engages with its customers. But it’s not just store design that’s impressive, Korean retailers appear to understand customer service and provide it with seamless effort.”
As the Korean retail industry continues to expand, the beauty sector, in particular, is flourishing – from the new independent boutiques to market leaders like our client Etude House. When Etude House asked us to reinvent its Seoul flagship, they briefed us to create something beautiful and experientially innovative, hence a glossy interior with personalised services such as My Colour Finder that allows customers to create their own shades of makeup. According to the Korean Herald newspaper, “Beauty brands are increasingly offering interactive experiences to maximise the retail experience.”
When it comes to creating visually impactful and engaging beauty brands that combine innovative design with relevant customer service and experience, the Koreans are outstripping everyone.
The holistic approach
A particular attention to skincare and beauty is deeply ingrained in Korean culture. Family facialists are as common as family doctors and in any neighbourhood bathhouse, you’ll find gaggles of women and men – taking care of one’s skin isn’t seen as a chore.
Typifying this brilliant attention to beauty, wellness and self-care is Korean airline etiquette. On board in first class, passengers are offered a sheet mask to combat the dry, sterile conditions (a genius opportunity for brands to have their masks used by a wide number of people!), and will also be treated to a pressure points demonstration to help them relieve stress and to relax during the flight.
The attention to health and skincare was really ramped up a notch after a public health scare in 2006. It was discovered that a number of products contained banned ingredients and consequently they were all removed from shelves. Born of this scandal is the app Hwahae that lists the ingredients of products in detail and helps consumers make ultra-informed choices before they purchase.
The UK is screaming for something like this. It’s so hard to find out what’s actually included in a product’s formula (the list on the back of a bottle is often lacking).
In-flight masks and the Hwahae app demonstrate South Koreans’ inventive and retail-minded response to changes in society, be that the rise in airline travel or a national scandal.
What’s next for Korean beauty?
Korean beauty has been successful on a small scale in the UK. ASOS has a Korea beauty section that sells insta-worthy sheet masks, but little else, and a few bricks and mortar stores like Space NK and Selfridges offer a tight edit of Korean skincare in select stores. Our favourite bloggers, influencers and websites, from Lisa Eldridge to Into the Gloss have been singing the merits of Korean products for years – the appetite for Korean products is definitely there, now all we need are more places to try them and buy them!
With Amore Pacific setting up shop in Paris’s Galeries Lafayette, it seems that Europe could be on the verge of a K-Beauty explosion. If that means more engaging retail experiences, well priced yet quality products, more intriguing bathroom cabinets and colourful insta-feeds, bring it on.