South Korea gave the world Samsung and Gangnam Style, but don't overlook its funky beauty exports: Snail slime facial masks. Fermented cosmetics. Bee venom skin creams.
Those Korean products, along with more conventional beauty fare, have gained international fans, especially in China, where South Korean brands are taking market share from established Western players.
China's $16 billion cosmetics and skincare market is healthy despite an economic slowdown, and 2013 growth is expected at around 12-13%, according to Mintel research. Still, some Western brands have lost their footing.
Revlon and Garnier -- a rare underperformer for China market leader L'Oreal -- just announced their pullout from China. Procter & Gamble and Avon both lost market share in the six years through 2012, according to Euromonitor International.
Competition from local brands is one explanation, as are Korean imports.
Fans say South Korean beauty brands innovate. They're cheaper than Western competitors. They're nicely packaged. They're riding Korea's pop culture wave, called hallyu, which may help them find a niche in a maturing China where companies can no longer be "all things to all people," said Matthew Crabbe, Mintel's director of research for Asia Pacific.
"Korean companies have been very successful in targeting people who like Korean soap operas or K-pop – the 'middle-income office lady' market, and also younger hipsters and so on," he said.
Several successful Korean brands have French-sounding names, like Mamonde and Laneige, in an attempt at European cachet.
But as brands go more niche, "perhaps that's an opportunity in itself: Ditch the French and go with Korean," Mr. Crabbe said.
Mamonde, Laneige, Sulwhasoo and Etude House are brands of South Korea's major beauty player, AmorePacific, which is expanding rapidly in China and is building a production and research center in Shanghai. One star product is a Laneige multipurpose compact, with light makeup and sunscreen contained in a cushion.
AmorePacific's skincare market share in China increased from 1.2% in 2007 to 2.6% in 2012, ranking it above Unilever and Johnson & Johnson, Euromonitor said.
AmorePacific is also making inroads in the U.S., where its upscale brands are sold at Sephora and Bergdorf Goodman. One global success is the Lolita Lempicka perfume brand. In 2011 the company bought luxury French fragrance line Annick Goutal.
Charlotte Cho, who co-founded website Soko Glam to sell Korean beauty items in the U.S., said Korean beauty companies take risks, are efficient and work hard, comparable to their counterparts in Korea's flat-screen TV, mobile and car industries.
Also, "the period from idea to the shelves is incredibly short compared to international beauty brands," she said in an email.
Ms. Cho said the industry is betting on "fermentation skincare" as the next big thing. The healthcare arm of LG, better known for electronics, offers a beauty line with a product containing 50 fermented plants.
Snail-ooze beauty masks from Korea, said to soothe skin, are big in China, and anti-aging bee-sting creams were reportedly a hit with Britain's royals.
Chinese market share of Korean skincare products is still small compared to leader L'Oreal, which claimed 16.8% of the market in 2012 and has grown yearly. Letting lower-end Garnier go allows it to concentrate on more successful brands.
Beauty blogger Bing Han, who founded a Chinese e-commerce site, said Garnier went low-profile after an initial marketing push. Also, more Chinese consumers are turning their attention from price to quality and results, "and many brands are overlooking the shift."
When he posted a message to his 218,650 microblogging followers asking if they would miss Garnier, "most said they will not, as its products were not good enough to be irreplaceable."
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