Why SK beauty products increasingly losing luster with Chinese consumers
Published: Jul 09, 2024 10:08 PM
Summer Palace's new set of lipsticks has stirred up a new buying spree among netizens and fashion lovers. Photo: A screenshot of cosmetic brand Catkin's Tmall Platform

Summer Palace's new set of lipsticks has stirred up a new buying spree among netizens and fashion lovers. Photo: A screenshot of cosmetic brand Catkin's Tmall Platform

A recent analysis report titled "Why are South Korean products losing their luster in China?" by The Korea Times has once topped the trending list on China's Sina Weibo, sparking heated discussions.   

The report said the South Korean wave in the early 2000s, sparked by the popularity of South Korean products ranging from skincare and cosmetics to fashion and food, began to cool off in 2016 in China and is now seeing a sharp decline.

Official statistics show that South Korea's exports to China decreased by nearly 20 percent year-on-year in 2023.

Huh En-jin, a visiting professor at Yonsei University, told The Korea Times that the sluggish export of South Korean products to China is due to Chinese consumers increasing preference for domestic products and related policies, according to the report. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, the hashtag "Why South Korean style is no longer popular in China" has been viewed about 67 million times, garnering more than 5,600 comments.

Some users on Sina Weibo said that Chinese domestic brands now offer products good enough for daily use, while South Korean products lack unique characteristics that can't be replaced.

"When I was young, I did like the South Korean style, but as I grew up and learned about traditional Chinese clothing like hanfu and the horse-faced skirt, as well as various other facets of traditional culture, I realized that our country has an abundance of beautiful and excellent cultural heritage," read a Sina Weibo comment.

With the ongoing rise of China-chic local brands, consumption among Chinese customers is subtly shifting. 

Taking cosmetics as an example, on one hand, South Korean products have been unable to innovate sufficiently to meet Chinese customers' changing demands. On the other hand, the rise of China-chic has made Chinese brands more appealing.

Rita Bao, a market analyst from ChemLinked, told Global Times that Chinese consumers now have a deeper understanding of the ingredients and efficacy of beauty products. Core technology, effective ingredients, and targeted efficacy have become important criteria for product selection. For a long time, South Korean skincare brands have mainly promoted a natural skincare concept, often associated with keywords such as "herbal," "natural," and "ginseng," with less emphasis on technology and efficacy. Consequently, their attractiveness to Chinese consumers has weakened, Bao said.

In the past few years, Chinese domestic beauty brands have been developing competitive brands by promoting research, marketing, channels, and customer acquisition. Cosmetics companies have been actively increasing investment in research and development, empowering products and brands through the development of core ingredients and technology. 

According to a McKinsey research report in 2022, 49 percent of Chinese consumers say that the quality of domestic brands is better than foreign brands.

The long-term impact on the market is much more complex. Chinese brands are fast rising with more effort being put into innovation and cultural marketing to resonate more with Chinese customers.

More and more brands are drawing inspiration from traditional Chinese culture and Eastern aesthetics, integrating these unique elements into their products. Many domestic brands have been inspired by traditional Chinese culture, not only in packaging design, but also in ingredients and formulations. A lipstick with packaging featuring a traditional Chinese heart lock accessory, a powder patterned after a hairpin from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) … many cosmetics products are capitalizing on China-chic features. 

In today's consumer landscape in China, where purchasing beauty products is increasingly driven by rational considerations such as ingredients, formulation, and efficacy, the main consumer forces - the post-1990 generation and Generation Z - have a high appreciation for traditional culture, viewing China-chic as a trend and lifestyle.

In summary, with the rise of Chinese domestic brands and changing consumer preferences, South Korean products face challenges in the Chinese market and need to innovate and adapt more effectively to regain consumer trust and appeal.

The authors are reporters with the Global Times.