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2020-07-14 13:42:52

K-Beauty Is Increasing Its Foothold in the U.S.

2020-07-14 13:42:52

Every beauty lover knows some of the most innovative skincare products come from South Korea. Whether we’re talking about detoxifying essences or facial masks, Korean Beauty – or popularly known as K-Beauty – has set foot in markets outside Asia as well, most notably the American and European market.

K-Beauty is more than just a marketing slogan to sell products, it comes together with an entirely new philosophy about skin care that is the secret for the most shiny and perfect skin. There are all sorts of interesting content you can find online, for example Korean beauty rituals – that consist of ten steps such as double-cleaning of your face to special toners and creams – but also background information of what stars of K-dramas use as makeup.

We talked with Alicia Yoon, expert in K-Beauty and founder of Peach & Lily.

Let’s start off simple: how did you get into skin care?

“My love for skincare comes from a personal place. I struggled with severe eczema growing up, skin bleeding, I thought it would never change. I grew up in the U.S., then I moved to Korea. When I first discovered skincare, my skin problems stopped.

I worked as a banker first, then as a consultant, so at the beginning of my working life I didn’t do anything related to skincare professionally. When I lived in Boston I realized that you couldn’t get Korean products.

Every time I came back from Korea I brought back so many beauty products, and I gave facials to friends. They asked me: where can we get this? I was thinking: it’s 2012 and yet you can’t find Korean beauty products in the U.S.?

As a consultant, I worked together with a big beauty brand and one day I had a conversation with the company’s chemist. He told me that Korea has cutting edge technology in terms of its beauty products. I always knew there was something different with Korean products, but now I had the science to back it up.

So yes, I saw this business opportunity to bring Korean beauty innovations and philosophies to the US in real time, combining my business experience with my love of skincare.”

Why did it take so long for Korean beauty brands to set foot on American soil?

“When I first went to Korea, I asked the brands: why aren’t you in the U.S.?

Their reply was: we’re interested but it’s a totally different market. In Korea – and Asia more broadly – we don’t have the same diversity, so we know exactly how to market the demographics; but in the US you have many different kinds of skin tones, different ethnicities, different languages, all these micro cultures, that was a big obstacle for Korean companies.

The second point is that Korea has a much smaller geography, you can reach an entire city with just two stores. But in the US you need 100 stores, channel strategy is therefore different. And there’s so much demand in other Asian countries.”

What has changed?

“What was interesting is that all Korean brands were very hesitant to make the step to the US. After knocking on all the doors, that’s what we discovered.

But then W Magazine thought this was a big story – they wanted to go to Korea with me, to see Korea, discover the industry, for an entire week. It resulted in a proper Korean feature story. People got interested in that story, and this is how people became more interested in K-Beauty. That’s when a lot of retailers started selling Korean products, for example Urban Outfitters.”

Do you think there’s a link between the gaining popularity of South Korean culture in general – K Pop and Korean dramas – and the growth of K-Beauty outside of Korea?

“That’s difficult to measure. Korean food is becoming more popular, there are not only Korean restaurants in Korea Towns, but outside as well. Korean movies have become a big export product, as well as pop music, K-Pop. It’s hard to tell what the correlation is though.

But I think that all those micro elements – people talking about Korea, for example the beautiful skin of celebrities in Korean dramas – works out well for K-Beauty.

More importantly, though, is the fact that there now are digital platforms, social media is growing a lot faster, and content creators, who’ve helped K-Beauty gain momentum outside of Korea as well.” 

What has helped Korean brands overseas? 

“I would say Korean brands really make an effort to become much more aware about different nuances in the U.S. Again with the availability of internet and social media you can see everything: you can study to find out what resonated with people in the U.S. or Europe, how do you talk to them?

But it’s still a challenge: if a company wants to operate in the U.S. it doesn’t only have to resonate with U.S., you need to create products that resonate globally, and that’s honestly hard to achieve.

If you want to be most competitive in any country, you need to think how to target consumers. Come up with something different for every local market, which means that certain formulas need to be different, or the packaging needs to be different.”

How do Korean brands differ in terms of their packaging?

“When it comes to packs, I think in Korea, again because it’s hyper-competitive, you have to stand out. When it comes to packaging, you have to be extremely cute or super fun or very minimal, extreme version of anything. You’ll see it all, there’s a huge range on shelves and websites.

I would say for sure packaging is a huge part of visual marketing in Korea, huge diverse range in Korea. There are different kinds of innovation that don’t exist here in the US yet. The functioning of the packaging has to be different.”

Environment is increasingly important for beauty brands – how is that in Korea?

“Yeah, in Korea the environmental aspect is becoming a big focus now. What I find interesting, in Korea if I have food I need to put it in government compostable bag. This has been going on for a long time, the recycling awareness is high in Korea.

How to upcycle, interesting fashion brands recycle older fashion items, but tear it apart and redesign it, for example. There is a huge conversation on this theme.

Beauty is tricky, it’s not a simple issue – for example, glass is not the most efficient recyclable material. How do you deal with that? So again, it’s not a simple issue, but I love that it’s a huge topic of conversation.” 


Bobbie van der List, Asia-Pacific Correspondent
Bobbie van der List works as a freelance correspondent in Tokyo.

He covers general news, but also follows the packaging industry from close-by. Among other publications, he has worked for Dutch packaging magazine Verpakken Magazine. Before Tokyo, Bobbie was stationed in Sweden, where he covered developments in the packaging industry for Dutch language media
Photos: Alicia Yoon, founder, Peach & Lily; Peach & Lily Super Reboot Resurfacing Mask; Glass Skin Refining Serum via Instagram