A few weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with Birchbox President and COO Philippe Pintatel who thought that because there was no clear winner amongst the Korean beauty brands the K-Beauty trend could easily die out.
The reason why there is no K-beauty brand winner is because they are not investing in the US and are using quick, short-term distribution opportunities to pursue growth instead.
Most Korean Brands don't invest in brand building
Most Korean beauty companies are really good at spitting out new products but they aren't that great at building lasting brands. Except for Amore Pacific and brands under bigger companies I haven't seen that many K-beauty brands that have built strong, long-lasting communities with brands that stand for something. The same goes for when they decide to enter to the US market.
Most partner with a distributor and or e-tailer because it's the easy thing to do with minimal investment. The short-term promise of immediate distribution in a department store, Sephora or Ulta is too enticing to give up so you see brands signing up for exclusive deals with distributors to get access.
Unfortunately, with little investment in actually building a brand with an ownable brand identity, brand-specific social media channels and an actual distribution strategy, as the distributor/e-tailer goes, so goes the brand. There is a strong dependency here on who they partner with.
It's all fun when retailers are chomping at the bit to catch up or get ahead of the Korean beauty trend which gives small brands a quick short-term win, but, in my opinion, because these brands are really just pursuing distribution, once K-beauty falls out of flavor, most of these brands with fall by the wayside.
The US Market is still a tiny portion of growth
It may seem like Korean beauty must be a huge market in the US given all the press coverage and retail expansion, but the reality is that for most Korean beauty brands China is still their #1 priority. The US is really just a kind of testing ground to see what can happen while the trend is still hot. Until the US market can prove itself to be a significant growth driver, you won't see most brands investing in this market.
With the tension between China and Korea these days, it will be interesting to see if beauty brands change their focus to the US or even to the Middle East or Europe, as growth in China becomes saddled with issues.
Distributors and e-tailers are winning
The ones who are really winning as the K-Beauty trend remains hot are the distributors and e-tailers like Soko Glam, Glow Recipe, etc, who have carved out their own niches and remained the gateway in between retailers and consumers. Even though they may promise many brands to help incubate them and launch them successfully into the US, I still haven't seen much investment into the beauty brands as into their own brands.
With retailer collaborations like Peach & Lily and Barneys or Glow Recipe and Lane Crawford, who do you remember - the Korean brands or the Korean retailers? That goes to show you that the Korean brands are really playing second fiddle. I've also heard anecdotally that as much as these e-tailers say they are helping to grow awareness of a brand really the ones who benefit are the e-tailers.