US retailer Target recently released a commercial on YouTube entitled “K-Beauty in 5 Easy Steps.” It shows a skincare tutorial using products by Laneige, a Korean cosmetics brand. The video received over half a million views in its first month on the company’s YouTube channel, where it features prominently in the “Beauty” category. Laneige is one of Korea’s premier skincare and makeup brands, owned by Amore Pacific Cosmetics Company. Target added Laneige to its cosmetics product lineup in 2014, and is proving very popular with American customers. According to Target’s Beauty Concierge Top Picks, Laneige products rank in the top 10 best sellers among the many thousands of beauty products that the store carries. In addition to Laneige, other Korean cosmetics brands are rapidly spreading to American drugstores and even opening brick-and-mortar locations. Korean brand Tony Moly is attracting customers all over the world and opened a flagship store in New York City in 2015, as well as being sold at Sephora and Urban Outfitters locations across the country.
The new demand for Korean cosmetics adds to the steady stream of cultural exports to the US, often described as the Korean wave. Korean cosmetics first gained international popularity among Chinese and Japanese tourists, but customers in the US and Europe have since caught on. According to Charlotte Cho, founder of Korean cosmetics online shopping site Soko Glam, the importance of a meticulous daily skincare routine is being acknowledged by Americans consumers who see the wide array of Korean products meeting those needs. Underscoring her point, many Korean makeup-related YouTube channels have high numbers of global subscribers. Sales figures also confirm the trend, with the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) stating that the amount of Korean cosmetics exported to the US has jumped 70% in 2015, far outpacing the automobile industry, which saw a more modest increase of just 20.4% from the year before.
The relationship does not go in just one direction. American cosmetics have long been popular in Korea. Even though Korea recorded lower sales revenues than usual due to the outbreaks of the MERS virus in 2015, Estee Lauder still considers Korea and China its two most important markets. To help maintain a strong presence in the Korean market, the company acquired a stake in the Korean cosmetic company Dr. Jart+ in October 2015.
Seo Hee Chung is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and an Asan Washington Young Fellow with the Asan Academy in Seoul.