Face value - The Forecast 14 - Magazine | Monocle
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South Korean city dwellers are known for dressing extremely well and being groomed to perfection. This pursuit of flawless looks has given rise to a $12.6bn (€11.9bn) domestic beauty industry – known as K-beauty – that is often years ahead of international competitors when it comes to trends, product development and ingredient research. “What you get here are hyper-educated consumers and every industry is only as competitive as its consumers demand it to be,” says Alicia Yoon, the Korean-US founder of clean beauty brand Peach & Lily. “Alongside K-pop and K-dramas, K-beauty has become one of the most important pillars of the Korean wave,” says Jamie Kim, head of the global marketing division at Amorepacific, a Seoul-based beauty conglomerate. She is referring to hallyu, a cultural phenomenon and soft-power triumph that has seen bands such as bts and TV shows including Squid Game capture the world’s attention. 

Amorepacific’s star line-up includes businesses in every sector of the market, from high-end player Sulwhasoo to its accessible, high-street equivalent Innisfree and mid-market Laneige, which is said to sell one of its famous Lip Sleeping Masks every three seconds. In addition to Amorepacific, the local market also has powerful beauty players such as LG h&h, the household and healthcare arm of the electronics multinational with a market cap of $7.4bn (€7bn), and top manufacturers Kolmar, Cosmax and Cosmecca.

Easy access to manufacturing has also created opportunities for the next generation of entrepreneurial South Koreans, with many independent names cropping up in recent years on online marketplaces such as Kakao and Olive Young. “Everyone in South Korea who loves beauty is able to make their own products and launch a brand,” says Daye Choi, co-founder of cosmetics brand Hince, who is in the process of launching a new body and hair-care business. K-beauty businesses are eager to claim their status as market pioneers, capitalising on the interest in their nation’s beauty culture. Their hero products, from moisturising sunscreens and snail serums to sheet masks, are no longer reserved for South Koreans or beauty connoisseurs committed to making an annual trip to Seoul. These items have infiltrated the global mainstream and the city’s beauty entrepreneurs are becoming ambitious with their international expansion plans, challenging their European counterparts which, until recently, monopolised the beauty industry. For the first time last year, exports of South Korean beauty products to Japan surpassed those from France, contributing to an export market for beauty products that is worth $9.2bn (€8.7bn), according to South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. 

“Everyone in South Korea who loves beauty is able to make their own products and launch a brand”

South Korea’s intimate relationship with beauty can be traced back to gwansang, an ancient concept whereby your fortune is laid bare on your face. But more recent political and economic factors have also helped shape the nation’s modern beauty standards. Stanford scholar So-Rim Lee looks to the Korean War and the proliferation of reconstructive surgery for the wounded as a key moment that reframed the national mindset, encouraging South Koreans to view the face, the body and consequently their destiny as something that could always be improved. Then high levels of unemployment, caused in part by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, led to the normalisation ofplastic surgery used to increase people’s chances of finding a job. 

In 2018, job-search website Saramin revealed that six out of 10 HR managers agreed that a candidate’s physical appearance affected their prospects – hence why complex beauty routines, advanced ingredients and often surgery are now considered commonplace, particularly in Seoul. “Constantly curious about new ingredients, products and brands, South Korean shoppers are fluent in the language of beauty,” says Zoe Heo of Seoul-based creative consultancy Lippincott. Shoppers here often use ingredient-tracking apps and in-depth reviews to inform their purchases, judging products on a scorecard and taking into account factors such as texture, packaging, value for money and, increasingly, sustainability.

With the bar set so high, beauty brands of all sizes invest heavily in innovation. Research, and the development of fresh formulas and packaging solutions, are top of the agenda, with recent launches including battery-free microcurrent devices that stimulate facial muscles, compostable sheet face masks made from corn starch and ingredients such as Centella asiatica (a herb that boasts a host of anti-oxidative and soothing properties). 

“The biggest trait of the South Korean beauty market is that it is very sensitive to changing trends,” says Choi. “It might sound ridiculous but a 10-year-long shift in the global beauty market takes only two to three years here.” For this reason, K-beauty formulas, suppliers and ingredients are now dispersed throughout global supply chains; it is a sphere of influence that isn’t always apparent. Cosmax, which calls itself one of the world’s leading health and beauty manufacturers, is a case in point: according to the company, a quarter of the world’s population uses its products and 15 out of 20 of the top companies in the global beauty market count it as a partner. In 2021 the business also launched Cosmax Plus, a one-stop online service to help prospective entrepreneurs develop everything from formulas and packaging to branding and design.

“Customers appreciate brands that invest in their packaging and logos because they often perceive this as a sign of overall trust and quality”

This commitment to innovation is helping South Korean beauty businesses lead the way in clean beauty. Their new-age, environmentally friendly ingredients and packaging are delivering efficient results but also offering sustainable solutions for the broader beauty industry. The market for “inner beauty” – positioned at the intersection of K-beauty and wellness (including products such as drinkable collagen supplements) – is also creating room for further growth and could exceed 25trn won (€18bn) by 2030, according to the Korea Health Supplements Association. It’s why Amorepacific has been investing in the sector by way of its supplement brand Vital Beautie and its body care brand Longtake, known for using upcycled oak to create its signature woody fragrances. The group acquired US clean-beauty brand Tata Harper in 2022 for 168bn won (€118m) – another sign of South Korean beauty players’ global ambition.  Elsewhere, there’s potential in less-crowded categories such as hair and nail care, and fragrances, where independent brands including Beauty of Joseon and Rom&nd are experiencing rapid growth. “As opposed to large corporations that rely on celebrity endorsements to promote their products, we’re seeing more smaller companies like ours gaining market share by focusing on branding,” says Hae-young Cha, who founded the fragrance and body-care brand Nonfiction. 

It seeks to enhance everyday rituals through subtle, handsomely packaged unisex scents and creams. In 2022, sales hit $40m (€37.9m), a 30 per cent boost compared to the previous year. The young business also made its official foray into European retail with a pop-up shop in Paris. “Customers appreciate brands that invest in their packaging and logos because they often perceive this as a sign of overall trust and quality,” says Cha, who believes that Nonfiction’s visuals and storytelling will resonate with customers abroad, as well as South Koreans. 

Expanding globally will bring its own set of challenges for South Korea’s beauty businesses – building a localised marketing infrastructure is no small feat, notes Peach & Lily’s Alicia Yoon. But these fast-paced businesses see this as an opportunity to open a cross-cultural dialogue and collaborate with new talent on localisation and creative strategies. While doing so, they’re helping to diversify a market that, to date, has been dominated by a handful of European giants, low-cost manufacturing and homogenous design. “With this approach, South Korean brands will be able to compete alongside the biggest global brands,” says Cha. “The calibre of our talent will make all the difference.”

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