Skin secrets from the Seoul

Having recently returned from Seoul, it struck me that the Korean beauty and cosmetics market is markedly different from Western markets. Whilst Western culture – particularly the US – has had an impact on beauty ideals, there is an exciting revolution of South Korean beauty and cosmetic products which are at the cutting edge of the category. It’s a trend that looks set to continue, with household names such as Selfridges and Sephora increasingly dedicating retail space to South Korean beauty and grooming products.

Whilst South Korea is perhaps more traditionally known for its technology and electronics sectors (and its powerful chaebols), it seems this penchant for science, combined with a strong sense of tradition – especially when it comes to ingredients – has created a perfect storm for innovation in beauty.

South Korea is now one of the top 10 global beauty markets, according to Mintel, with the sector being valued at more than $13 billion in 2017 – half of which is purely facial skincare! A significant part of this is due to South Korean men, who are the biggest consumers of men’s grooming products in the world; and many brands, such as Iope, have dedicated make-up and cosmetics products for men. This phenomenon is part of the reason that Seoul is often dubbed the beauty capital of the world.

So what’s the source of South Korea’s success in beauty innovation? What can other beauty brands learn? I believe its success is down to a perfect blend of five key factors:

1. Heightened beauty awareness and expectations, such as the widespread desire to have ‘chok-chok’ skin, which is bright, fair, plump and dewy; as well as a focus on the lips, such as the Korean trend to apply gradient lip colour for a ‘just-bitten’ effect which is believed to look more youthful. These ideals are often driven by the huge influence of K-pop and K-drama stars (who are particularly idolised by teenagers); and fuelled by the competitive environment that forms as a result of half the population of 51 million living in the densely populated Seoul Capital Area – it is commonly believed that looking better improves your prospects in work and life in general.

2. Trust of natural ingredients is a national passion, with K-beauty brands often having ranges that combine traditional ‘hanbang’ (Korean herbal medicine) ingredients with modern Western science – to achieve the best of both worlds. Examples of exotic ingredients include ginseng, sheep oil (extracted from sheep’s wool), truffle, matcha and snail mucus (yes, really) – and rave reviews suggest they are delivering on efficacy, too.

3. Rapid, technology-enabled innovation which produces affordable new products, whilst still meeting the expectations and desires that form the core of the market – hygiene, convenience of use, high performance, plus a sense of fun and enjoyment, even if only momentary (often conveyed by packaging), are some key drivers. I observed that Korean consumers are constantly digitally connected, so I expect the use of augmented reality technology within the health and beauty category – for example, ModiFace enabling ‘try-on’ capabilities for make-up, hair colouring, skin anti-ageing products and even cosmetic surgery – will take off in Seoul. With ModiFace claiming its augmented reality can double conversion to sales, this will surely add fuel to the flames of the beauty industry in Korea.

4. Endless choices provide a captive audience with a variety of new and exciting product experiences, which they are happy to experiment with and adopt (especially fuelled by the tendency of giving several free product samples with any purchase). Indeed, during my exploration of Seoul’s main shopping district Myeong-Dong, it felt like 90% of retail space was either cosmetics/beauty stores or coffee shops! With this saturation of the beauty industry, it begins to explain why it’s common for South Korean men and women to carry out up to 10-step skin routines on a daily basis!

5. Sensorial (often hybrid) formats are everywhere, and add a playful dimension to skincare innovations – in addition to real consumer benefits such as cleanliness and convenience. For example, cushion compacts contain a sponge soaked in formula, with a partner application sponge – when used together, they produce a lighter emulsion on the skin (so no more wastage due to cracked powders). Cleansing sticks are spill-proof, leak-proof, travel-friendly sticks of solid cleanser which foam up when applied straight onto the face. And lipstick powders are a superfine powder that transforms into a smooth lipstick-like consistency once applied to the lips. Just to name a few!

Perhaps brand loyalty will provide Western brands with some reassurance or insulation from this tide of innovation for a while. But I’m sceptical as to whether this will be enough to defend market share in the long term. With millennials identifying as ‘citizens of the world’ above nationality, religion or ethnicity; growing demand for skincare regimes for men enhanced by shifting attitudes and ‘traditional’ gender expectations dying out; brand loyalty waning across the board; e-tailers enabling easy access to a global marketplace; and the growing influence of technology in the beauty world, it’s clear to me that Western beauty brands need to invest in breakthrough innovation now, to future-proof relevance in an evolving marketplace.