From sheet masks to 10-step skincare routines, Korean beauty has evolved from a niche industry to a global cosmetics phenomenon. And understandably, many western brands are keen to enter the market. 

But whether they’re looking to take the secrets of K-Beauty to global consumers, or bring their own products to the Korean market, it’s not just makeup and skincare trends that are unique to this country. 

Cosmetics brands need a complete understanding of South Korea’s consumer behaviour, marketing and packaging techniques to create an authentic brand that resonates in both Asia and the West. 

K-beauty: a $9.4 billion opportunity 

Beauty brands are always looking for the ‘next big thing’, and in recent years that’s been Korean makeup and skincare. The total size of South Korea’s beauty market surpassed $9.4 billion in 2019, having grown at an annual rate of 4.3% over the past five years. 

A natural response to this global interest has been importing K-Beauty brands into the western market. From Amazon to Sephora, online and in-store retailers have experimented with offerings from the likes of Missha, Innisfree, Dr. Jart+ and Skinfood. And many Korean brands have been trading directly internationally as well. 

There’s also been a movement towards western beauty brands founding product ranges based on Korean beauty principles and techniques. Successful enterprises include KraveBeauty and Peach and Lily; the latter was founded by a consultant who grew up in the USA but then moved to South Korea. 

But what about movement the other way? Is there a market opportunity for western brands who want to offer the K-Beauty market something different? The short answer is yes – but it needs to be thought through carefully. 

From product quality to eye-catching packaging 

To successfully capture K-beauty spend, global cosmetics brands need to understand what Korean consumers want from their cosmetics and skincare purchases. It’s a highly sophisticated and commercially savvy market, focussed on product quality. And this desire for luxe extends to beauty packaging, as well as the actual goods. 

Korean beauty is highly competitive, and homegrown brands use their external packaging to make new releases stand out. As Alicia Yoon, founder of Peach and Lily told, “when it comes to packaging you have to be extremely cute or super fun or very minimal…you’ll see it all, there’s a huge range on shelves and websites.”

The diverse nature of packaging design is evident when you compare how two of K-beauty’s most successful brands choose to present their products. Hince opts for a high-end, minimalist style, not dissimilar to Glossier’s branding – its Ambience Color Mascara comes in a plain white tube with just the logo, product name and shade in written text. 

In contrast, Tony Moly captures the consumer’s eye with quirky, novelty product packaging. Its Peach Punch Sherbet Cleansing Balm comes in a pot quite literally shaped like a peach. While its Pore Sebum Control Gel Cream tub is shaped like a surprised octopus! 

Engaging with sophisticated digital consumers 

Even if western beauty brands present a luxury product and package it up creatively, there are further considerations to creating a buzz in the Korean beauty market. For example, ingredients are everything to K-beauty followers, and they want to know EXACTLY what’s in their cosmetics before committing to purchase. 

This depth of information is difficult to fit on a small box or label, so many Korean brands rely on their website to provide the level of detail their customers crave. As a result, 62% of K-beauty brands have an ingredient library page on their website, compared to just 10% of western brands. 

The integration of physical packaging and online content is critical to success in Korea. The country has a highly developed digital culture, with 96% internet penetration and one of the fastest networks in the world. 

Many K-beauty brands use connected packaging to draw customers through to their website, where they will offer guided customer services to help them learn more about product application and ingredients. 

And in recent years, the digital engagement opportunity has expanded into live commerce via Naver and Kakao – Korea’s biggest social networks – where consumers can send messages to a host in real-time, exploring the product and even receiving online discount codes to encourage them to buy. 

DEEPER DIVE: how to build an international brand experience using connected packaging. 

Meeting Korean beauty market regulations 

For global cosmetics and skincare brands eyeing K-beauty success, there are also local compliance guidelines to consider. 

South Korean beauty products fall into two categories – regular cosmetics and functional cosmetics – which are governed by separate legislation. Functional cosmetics are often referred to as ‘cosmeceuticals’ because of their ingredients and application goals, and pre-market approval is required before they can launch to Korean consumers. 

Functional beauty products also need to be carefully labelled. For example, cosmetics with contents of 10g or less need to detail the product name, manufacturing authorisation holder (MAH) name, retail price, lot number and expiration date. By the time product sizes reach 50g, a full ingredients list, cautions for use, efficacy and directions must also be included, among other information. 

With such high consumer expectations, stringent industry standards and strong market opportunity, cracking the K-beauty market isn’t straightforward for western brands. But with the right expertise, content localisation and a joined-up packaging and online promotional strategy, there’s huge potential for success. 

For more insights into compliant global brand expansion, follow Hooley Brown on LinkedIn. 

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