How Asian beauty brands can stay ahead in the crowded US market
Published on WARC.
In Asia, the art of fostering and maintaining healthy skin is learned from a young age. And “healthy” doesn’t just mean free from acne, scars or wrinkles. It means bouncy, glowing and clean – attributes that can only be achieved when you take care of your whole body.
This inside-out approach can be traced all the way back to traditional Chinese medicine, which teaches that your skin is a mirror of your body, meaning the healthier you are, the healthier your skin will be. This philosophy permeates Asian culture and manifests itself in:
Foods that cause “damp heat” (濕熱) in the body being sworn off for fear that they will lead to oily skin.
Japanese acupressure or shiatsu (指圧) to increase blood flow through energy channels and sort out skin issues.
Korean body scrubs or seshin (세신) for intense, full-body exfoliation that promises the smoothest skin.
Another belief central to Asian skincare traditions is the notion that you have a responsibility to look presentable for yourself and for others.
In Japan, omotenashi (お持て成し) is hospitality that teaches the importance of being well-groomed in order to show respect. And in Chinese culture there is ren kao yi zhuang (人靠衣裝), which literally translates to “clothes make the man”, extending the belief that a polished appearance is tied to success.
Deeply-rooted cultural beliefs such as these have helped to solidify skincare’s essential status – and high sales numbers – across Asia. On average, South Korean women spend twice as much on skincare and beauty products compared to American women.
The spending starts early as well, with a wide range of price points guaranteeing that even pre-teens can afford trending products. By the time Asian girls reach adulthood, skincare is an established part of their everyday routine and they approach it with excitement and ease.
Asian beauty woos US consumers
Asian beauty’s reputation for being established, rigid and routine-based is highly appealing to the American consumer, for whom a proper “skincare” lineup might consist of makeup remover wipes, face scrub and a fragranced lotion.
“Most consumers in Asia have a basic idea of what to look for when it comes to personal care items,” notes Vriko Kwok, co-founder of Hong Kong-based Herbs’Oil Hawaii. “They somehow have had the experience of using cleanser, toner, creams or masks. But that's not the case in the US.”
Where Asia placed prestige on proven formulas and internal health, America pushed coverup, bronzer and eyeliner as portals to achieving the perfect Hollywood look.
But Asian beauty changed all that when it reached mainstream status in the US around 2015. Consumers were intrigued by new products like BB cream and sheet masks, credible brands like Shiseido and SK-II, and platforms like Soko Glam that allowed them to explore the best of K-beauty.
Asian beauty’s rise to stardom was also fuelled by a fast-growing group of Asian American advocates. According to Pew Research, the US Asian population grew from 11.9 million to 20.4 million between 2000 and 2015 – the fastest increase of any major racial or ethnic group. With an innovative approach, attractive packaging and growing consumer base, Asian players were slowly but surely shifting American beauty standards.
Asian beauty faces fierce competition
Fast forward to 2021, where changing consumer preferences and an onslaught of impressive challenger brands are posing entirely new threats to Asian beauty’s allure.
While Asian beauty brands were being praised for their tried and true philosophies, a growing wave of US-based competitors are working in the background to capitalise on the brewing wellness craze and they are now everywhere.
“Clean beauty” brands like Kosas are boasting beneficial ingredients and botanical formulas, science-led skincare stars like Knours are addressing the link between a woman’s hormones and her skin, and editor-approved labels like Youth to the People are delivering on the demand for sustainable, high-performance skincare.
With a slew of shiny new brands blowing up their Instagram feeds, it’s becoming easier for US shoppers to overlook Asian offerings. A 2021 BoF article K-Beauty’s Golden Age Is Ending. What Comes Next? notes that "The struggle for differentiation has only intensified in the wake of the pandemic as businesses doubled down on ultra-experiential retail and content-centric direct-to-consumer channels to give them the edge."
With an increasing number of beauty brands vying for the average American’s attention and money, a new level of relationship-building will be key to fostering long-term loyalty.
Today’s skincare shoppers expect to be educated, informed and reassured that what they’re buying will work. Asian beauty brands can provide that reassurance by taking a more deconstructed approach – breaking down the ingredients used, the recommended routine and the cultural traditions that inspired their creation.
Everyday beauty education
If you were to ask an American consumer why they don’t use Asian beauty products, there’s a good chance they’ll say it’s because they don’t know where to start.
The biggest barrier standing between Asian beauty brands and US consumers is a general lack of knowledge. Yes, particular products like the LANEIGE Lip Sleeping Mask and Tatcha’s Water Cream have achieved American fame thanks to word-of-mouth referrals. But overall, even Asia’s biggest players lack brand awareness in the US. And a deluge of new direct-to-consumer brands with similar claims and overlapping ingredients are only making it more difficult for Asian brands to break through.
As Asian players set out to capture the US market, they’ll need to go deeper than high-impact ad placements and polished products shots. Savvy skincare shoppers are looking beyond labels and doing their research. They’re realising that:
A higher price doesn’t always guarantee higher quality.
“Clean beauty” lacks a standardised definition.
One skincare routine doesn’t, and never will, fit all.
With this awakening, empowered consumers are demanding complete transparency. One way Asian beauty brands can deliver is to clearly state the ingredients and their benefits. Google’s 2020 Year in Search report shows that the most searched-for skincare questions in the US included “what does vitamin C do for your skin” and “what does niacinamide do.”
Much of this curiosity comes from the oft-cited yet heavily debated statistic that 60% of skincare absorbs into your bloodstream – a number that has suddenly taken on critical importance due to pandemic-driven health concerns.
But Asian brands can offer peace of mind by providing something akin to a skincare nutrition label. For inspiration, look no further than US up-and-comer Isla Beauty.
Not only does Isla break down the origin of every ingredient, it also:
Releases exact percentages of the active ingredients in their formulations.
Lists ingredient benefits on their site.
Voluntarily vets that information through a team of independent scientists.
Isla Beauty co-founder Tracy Dubb said: "Instead of just telling you that we're insiders and we've been doing it, why don't we connect people with the source? Why don't we tell people why ingredients are coming from all over the world and have other experts weigh in on our performance or our formulations?"
Trusted teacher necessary
Central to a strong education system is a trusted teacher. To overcome the lack of familiarity among US consumers, Asian beauty brands can provide direct access to their founders, cosmetic chemists or expert evangelists. After all, it’s difficult to build a relationship with an anonymous entity.
One of today’s top skincare teachers in the US is Dr Barbara Sturm. The celebrity skin guru regularly makes herself available to her growing fanbase via Instagram LIVE, TikTok, YouTube and even FaceTime consultations.
During lockdown, she launched Sturm Skin School, a free online educational series that addressed questions like “how does retinol affect melasma”, “how does gut health relate to skin health” and “what products are best for adult acne.”
Skin School attendees represented a wide range of ages, races and income levels, proving the strong appetite for luxury, scientifically-led skincare. In a time when IRL experiences are on hold, Asian beauty brands would be wise to double down on digital strategies that build virtual communities. Think TikTok videos that explain the benefits of Asian skincare ingredients like snail mucin or centella asiatica, Clubhouse talks debunking Asian beauty myths, or live Q&A sessions with company founders.
Skincare education doesn’t stop at ingredients. There’s also the all-important topic of when, and how often, to apply your products. And although the well-documented 10-step Korean skincare routine and more familiar twice-daily am/pm touchpoints haven’t disappeared, they’re now being challenged by a new era of always-on beauty.
It used to be that you would apply your skincare products in the morning, before applying your makeup, and at night, after washing your makeup off.
But as cosmetics take a back seat and beauty becomes increasingly tied to overall health and wellness, new round-the-clock skincare moments are emerging:
Anti-pollution serums combat blue light damage from endless hours spent on Zoom.
Personalised meal plans promise to heal your skin issues from the inside out.
Products are now categorised according to time of day – from a morning layer of SPF, to an afternoon mist, to an evening mask.
New uses for toners and essences are elevating everyday products, while the concept of 24/7 beauty shows global brands how to monetise micro daily beauty moments.
From a marketing perspective, more beauty moments create more opportunities for contextually-relevant advertising. For example:
Imagine seeing an ad for post-sweat cleansing wipes during an intense YouTube workout.
Or being served an ad for a hormonal acne serum while checking your period-tracker app.
How about getting a sponsored Instagram post for an energising green tea face mask just as midday fatigue hits?
As we move away from the one-product-to-do-it-all mindset, hyper-targeted ads can help consumers understand which products are best suited for their specific needs.
Some brands are already shifting their strategy to accommodate lifestyle-led routines. J-beauty brand Tatcha has a new line of products designed to be used throughout the day. And American cult-favorite Drunk Elephant features “smoothie recipe cards” for morning, night or anytime. The anytime “Here Comes the Sun Smoothie,” for example, is made up of one to two drops of Virgin Marula Oil, one pump of B-Hydra, and one drop of D-Bronzi. The site encourages shoppers to “Listen to your skin, it doesn’t always need the same thing.”
As US consumers experiment with different product combinations and skincare schedules, Asian brands can step in to provide 1:1 consultations. Personalised beauty breakdowns will help businesses stand out in a sea of countless and contradictory recommendations.
Embracing Asian traditions
Taking on the role of educator extends beyond products, process and ingredients. In an interview with Forbes, Tatcha founder Vicky Tsai stated that she “created Tatcha to celebrate, honour and share Japanese culture”.
When thinking back to its launch over a decade ago, she recalls being told that the brand would not succeed “because Asian beauty was ‘too ethnic’ and not aspirational enough for Western consumers”.
It is safe to say that Tatcha has proven any doubters wrong. The brand was bought by Unilever for an estimated US$500 million in 2019 and is growing globally.
But Tsai’s original goal of celebrating Asian culture is perhaps even more urgent now in 2021 than it was in 2009. As violence against Asian Americans escalates in the US, there’s a critical need to educate people about what it means to be Asian – in America or elsewhere.
Asian beauty brands are in a unique position to help provide that education by leaning into the unique values, cultural traditions and rich heritage that set them apart.