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The (Anti)K-Beauty Movement and Other Korean Beauty Trends

Published July 10, 2019
Published July 10, 2019
May Coop

South Korea is ranked among the top 10 beauty markets in the world, with an estimated value of US$13 billion in 2017 according to numbers from Mintel. Becoming a driving force in the global beauty ecosystem and one to watch for product, packaging, and business innovation. On a recent trip to Seoul hosted by Kotra for Consumer Goods 2019, we noted six trends that are surfacing, some at the nascent stage and others undergoing evolution worth noticing.

1. (Anti) K-Beauty: While industry insiders may have been tapped into the innovation coming out of Korea in terms of formulation and cosmetic procedures, it was the the fast beauty marketing, shock value ingredients, affordable price points, and Insta-worthy packaging that was the fuel for the K-beauty boom. But on my recent trip to Korea I was shocked when brand after brand went out of their way to say they were NOT a "K-beauty" brand. These emphatic statements were one part an attempt at differentiation in a wildly crowded market/category, with the second part being a reaction to the plateauing of K-beauty sales. This new generation of beauty brands coming out of Korea have longevity in mind, and are following in the steps of Amorepacific rather than Tonymoly.

2. Green Survival: The anti-pollution trend isn't completely new, but its growth has it on track to move from trend to category in the very near future. The environmental issue has manifested itself into a product category. Unlike eco-friendly consumption, which is optional, "green survival" is seen as compulsory. Environmental issues have made people more environment-conscious out of necessity.

  • Anti-Pollution Skincare: The pollution problem in Korea is not only a health issue but the toxins also create environmental stressors on the skin—irritation, inflammation, and premature aging. Anti-pollution skincare is becoming well established in Korean beauty ranges, addressing both protection and repair, with sales soaring. Anti-pollution or environmental protection products could evolve to a stand-alone category similar to sun.
  • Dust Masks: Dust masks may be a fashion statement against global air pollution in some circles, but in Korea they have become a necessity. Fine dust has become a major issue in the daily lives of South Koreans who monitor air quality in real time. Masks range from trendy printed versions to more serious masks that contain respirators. When fine dust levels are high, the entire Korean capital can be seen wearing dust masks.
  • Air Purifiers: 2 million air purifiers are estimated to have been sold in the local market alone in 2018, more than four times higher the roughly 500,000 units sold in 2014.
  • Indoor Activities: Outdoor activities are going indoors with an entire industry emerging. South Korea already has one of the largest numbers of indoor, simulated screen golf centers, with the number reaching more than 7,000 in 2017.
  • Research: Samsung Electronics has opened a fine dust institute established within the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, with SAIT Deputy President Hwang Sung-woo named as its director.

3. "Natural Beauty": South Korean is often called the plastic surgery capital of the world, with the highest rate of cosmetic surgeries globally and nearly 1 million procedures a year. However, recently there has been a cultural movement bubbling up that is pushing back on traditional beauty standards based on an ideal of perfection: ivory skin, big, round eyes, and a V-line jaw. This cultural conflict between natural versus plastic is captured in the Korean drama My ID Is Gangnam Beauty. The result is a recent trend towards "natural beauty" with cosmetic procedures that are more personalized and less invasive, and away from "Gangnam beauty," a look that’s very obviously manmade. Of course in Korean style they are pushing the envelope with services like Skin Botox, Ultraviolet Blood Irradiation Therapy, Acculift, Stem Cell Therapy, and Air Ulthermage.

4. Clean Formulations: While a connection with nature is an important foundation in Korean beauty, the products that emerged during the K-beauty revolution are not necessarily clean by current Western standards. Korea has been the hands-down global leader in innovation, but it is the United States and Australia that have pioneered the clean, nontoxic, chemical-free beauty category along with sustainable packaging and manufacturing practices. There is a move toward safe, minimal ingredients that has seen a surge in popularity in Korea, with a new generation of smaller K-beauty brands leading the way. Most brands are developing into EWG standards because of the perceived wide acceptance in the West.

  • Positioning: The positioning of clean K-beauty is less ingredients, safer formulas, and eco-friendly, but vegan and environmental impact claims are still fairly rare.
  • Packaging: While packaging for these clean brands steers clear of K-beauty whimsy, adopting a more minimalistic approach, the environmental impact and sustainability of packaging is not yet part of the equation. As with Western markets, packaging innovation will follow once the demand requires it.
  • Hwahae: This is not only the most popular beauty app in Korea, but it also has an information database of more than 2.8 million ingredients and uses the EWG rating system with almost 11K products listed, 6450 registered brands, and 4 million reviews, making it the largest cosmetic platform in South Korea.
  • Brands To Watch: Whamisa, P:rem, Kalvuu, Aromatica, Benton

5. Fast Healing: Urban environments aren't exactly conducive to self-care, with space at a premium and lives that move at a hectic pace. As K-beauty numbers begin to plateau, wellness concepts pushed through the fast beauty lens have emerged. Urban healing concepts like Shim Story, The First Class, and Mr. Healing create small oases that allow city dwellers to unwind and relax, if only for a moment. This "fast food" of the wellness trend might just be part of the prevention we need for mental burnout.

6. Indie Beauty: The Korean beauty market is largely controlled by conglomerates LG Household and Healthcare and Amorepacific. Both companies have extensive retail footprints and robust product portfolios with globally recognized brands as well as domestic brands with an indie feel. The K-beauty boom has given rise to indie brands incubated in the domestic market but built with an eye for export. These brands are leading the clean beauty movement, embracing hangbang (traditional Korean medicine), and are vehemently branding themselves as anti-K-beauty.

An an extension to the indie beauty trend, Korea has seen the emergence of beauty incubators like:

  • Wish Company: Founded in 2010, the company is focused on content creation and beauty brand incubation. Their Wishtrend TV channels  have received the Gold Play button on YouTube. Their portfolio includes cosmeceuticals By Wishtrend, natural Jungle Botanics, and vegan, eco-frendily "dear, Klairs" which just launched at Ulta.
  • Salty Family Group: Founded in 2009, the company is vertically integrated with an OBM (own brand management) business model. They provide turnkey solutions for retailers and businesses while also incubating their own brands like May Coop, Dilly Delight, Lychee Mask, and Real Egg Pack.

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