With the mass proliferation of K-Beauty in the US, we've gotten to a point where I started asking myself in an almost existential manner, "what is K-Beauty"? The reason behind this is that as Korean beauty products have caught fire in the US amongst retailers, consumers, the media, Western brands, and the like, I fear that K-Beauty has become copied, bastardized, and diluted.
Western brands as k-Beauty? no way.
As I have written about before, we see K-Beauty "inspiration" in Western brands like Garnier's Moisture Bomb. Tracey Robey of blog fanserviced-b also wrote about how she gets pitch emails from Western brands claiming to be "K-Beauty". If one claims to be K-Beauty, does that make it so? If not, then what is K-Beauty?
You also have a lot of retailers that are now creating entire sub-categories dedicated to K-Beauty to capture mindshare in this beauty trend yet they include non-Korean products and brands. This always irks me because it shows either a lack of proper understanding from major retailers of what K-Beauty is or it means that there is no common and clearly defined definition of what K-Beauty is. I think it's probably a mix of the two.
I've heard K-Beauty referred to as a concept and also as a category. So which is it? If it's a concept, then according to the definition of the word, it means that K-Beauty is a general, abstract idea that anyone can participate in as long as they follow some basic criteria. This is the definition that Sephora has taken. If it's a category, then according to the definition of the word, it is a class of products having particular shared characteristics, meaning it's exclusive to only those that qualify.
Even when I Google "what is K-Beauty" there is a Wikipedia page which defines it as:
"K-Beauty is an umbrella term for skin-care products that derive from South Korea. The fad gained popularity worldwide, particularly in the U.S., in 2016 and focuses on health, hydration and a preferred lack of pigment. Products used include ingredients such as snail slime, morphing masks, bee venom (an anti-inflammatory “faux-tox” alleged to relax facial muscles), moisturizing starfish extract, and pig collagen. The regimen involves a series of steps including cleansing rituals (with oil and water based products), sheet masks, essences, serums, moisturizers, cushion compacts, fermented products, and SPF 35 sunscreen. At night, the sunscreen is replaced by a “sleep cream”. Each regimen is addressed differently depending on complexion factors including hormonal fluctuations and lifestyle choices."
the definition of k-beauty
Here is what I think K-Beauty is and the definition that I hope brands, retailers, consumers, and media go by when using the term.
"K-Beauty is short for Korean Beauty and refers to beauty products that originate from and are manufactured in Korea. These products also share traits and qualities such as an emphasis on skincare, innovative new product categories, use of interesting, wow! ingredients and clever packaging in format and design. It is a beauty category whose concepts have often been leveraged by non-Korean brands in order to remain relevant with the trend."
- To be a legitimate K-Beauty brand, your brand must originate from Korea and be manufactured by a Korean company and Korean manufacturer - Sorry but Garnier's Moisture Bomb does not qualify as K-Beauty. And, sorry, Sephora, but Tatcha and boscia do not belong in your K-Beauty category - these are Japanese-inspired brands re-categorized to fit a hot sales buzz word. Sorry, Julep, but your brand does not qualify as K-Beauty even though you market yourself this way when convenient.
- A legitimate K-Beauty brand will leverage and incorporate packaging, ingredient, and product category innovations from Korea and popularized in Korea - this is one of the main reasons K-Beauty has really taken off in recent years. Everyone wants to know what's next to come from the "Silicon Valley of cosmetics". BB cream, cushion compacts, sheet masks, moisture pads, tattoo brows - these are all product categories that have been developed and or popularized in Korea before they made it out west and they would qualify as K-Beauty related.
- Your K-Beauty brand may involve packaging design that can be kitschy, whimsical, and fun - Korean brands are really about making skincare and cosmetics fun and accessible and oftentimes this is done through playful packaging and eye-catching design that really helps cut through the clutter of the very competitive beauty market in Korea. This has also been a key contributor to the K-Beauty trend and popularity.
- Your K-Beauty brand appeals to the senses through emotive descriptors, sensorial textures, eye catching visual cues - belif Aqua Bomb, too cool for school Egg Mousse Soap, Gummy Sheet Masks, Jellies, Puddings - these are all product names and descriptors that Korean beauty brands have been using for skincare to make their products stand out and to descripe interesting textures like gels, cloud creams, puddings, etc. This has also been a strength and key characteristic of K-Beauty.
While Western brands can take inspiration from Korean beauty brands' uncanny ability to innovate and cut through the clutter, they will never really qualify as K-Beauty. Rather, retailers are re-categorizing their skus and fitting their products into the Korean beauty trend but this should not be confused with authentic K-Beauty. Retailers like Sephora also need to correct course and realize that K-Beauty is a category and not a concept.
As discerning American consumers better understand this, I do hope that retailers get it right. If anyone has thoughts on this definition of K-Beauty, would love to hear.