Beautiful Seoul – How does K-Beauty measure up?

The notion of proposing a project focus for this assignment was a difficult one. The freedom to choose saw me flip-flop from a focus on gaming in South Korea, after being inspired by State of Play, to a focus on just South Korean culture in general. However, after considering the autobiographical approach required for the task, my brain could only think of one industry that demonstrates both global appeal while still retaining such a strong sense of cultural identity whilst also being important to me.

The Beauty Industry in Korea (or K-beauty as it’s affectionately known)

ALSO, I love beauty products. I won’t even deny it a little bit. It would be sacrilegious to both my personality and the beauty-products that I love. And I don’t have a ‘type’, pretty much willing to try anything. This will be my first observation. 

Exploring the Korean Beauty industry


This is a photograph of the beautiful city of Seoul in South Korea. Sadly, I have not been. What I do know about Seoul is it’s considered by some to be the “new beauty capital” (EuroMonitor, 2016) of the world.

I’m interested in exploring, through creating an informative website, the global appeal of Korean beauty given its massive increase in demand. I also want to incorporate cultural discourse with an analysis of the IMC (integrated marketing and communications) activities within the Korean marketplace, and how these converge with a global marketplace.

How I discovered K-Beauty in Hong Kong

In 2015, I was offered an opportunity to visit Hong Kong for two weeks. The only plans that were concrete for the trip were the days I was to attend the Asia Jewellery, Gift and Trade fair. Each pavilion (they have three, and they are HUGE!) is situated in a different location in the city. From where I stayed in Wan Chai, I had to travel inter-island just to get to my location for the day – which ensured I had a bucket load of time to explore. I expected to visit so many historic and culturally important destinations (I still saw a few, mind you) however time constraints meant that I spent more time shopping in two weeks than I would care to admit.

What I discovered, was that a large concentrated portion of Hong Kong is an urban jungle, filled with masses upon massess of stores dedicated to beauty and health.

One of the first things I observed was the diversity of products and brands. Even just the eight or so blocks surrounding my hotel were just bloody jam-packed with little shops.

I found myself constantly entering those selling beauty products because there was always something new to try, and unlike clothes, I found beauty consumer choice to be so diversified. There were two main stores that I went into a lot, mostly because they were everywhereeeeee. I mean, everywhere. If you’ve ever been to major cities in South-East Asia, they’re about as frequent as 7/11’s.

I couldn’t stop trying out creams and other crazy shit – I mean, my left hand and lower forearm were so damn hydrated/pampered by the time I got back home. Of course, there were lots of Asian beauty brands that I didn’t recognize and lots of international brands that I did. Rarely, however, did I see any Australian brands bar Lanolips.


These little guys (which I consider to be one of my holy grail prods’) I found in a store called Mannings. Coming across this product was totally by chance, and from memory was the only Australia made and owned product I found while I was there. And it was next-level exciting.

What I did notice, and what piqued my interest in the Korean beauty industry, is that a large majority of the products, branded in Korean or not, were made, designed and/or packaged in Korea. Regardless of price or conveyed luxury, Korea-origin products dominated. Unintentionally (or was it?) I arrived home with many beauty-goodies. After my initial observation about how many prods were actually Korean born, I didn’t take it into consideration much. That was, until trying to decipher instructions in a variety of languages led me to inspect the packaging close enough so as to see that they were all except one, yep, you guessed it, made in South Korea.

These products included;

Sheet masks (Face & Under Eye)


Pigmentation cream

Hair masks

A liquid eyeliner

50,000 lip balms (Didn’t buy lanolips though, I already had one, duh)

Individual hair masks

Eyebrow ‘crayons’

Body cream

Nail lacquer

…I went absolutely mental. Most of them have been used and disposed of, sadly. However I took dug up some masks and an eyebrow ‘crayon’ that I bought in HK which I’ll use as a basis for my experimental collection.

Some Initial Observations about Korean Beauty

  • A lot of items include novelty ingredients
  • Unusual, non-ergonomic packaging doesn’t seem to hinder consumer appeal. Novelty seems to actually be MORE appealing.
  • Packing generally has a more luxurious feel. I.e. face masks were almost always in foil packages usually accompanied by a similarly ‘lux’ looking box. Even if the price amounted to be about $5 Australian.
  • Beauty is considered non-routine. It’s a luxury that women don’t see as a chore, rather an enjoyable past-time
  • I don’t recall seeing even one male in either of those particular stores. Despite them selling many ‘mens’ items.
  • In Australia, beauty items from overseas brands are often considered to be more luxurious than home-grown , ie. major luxury brands such as La Prairie (Switzerland) stocked in upmarket retailers like David Jones and Mecca.
  • Here, I often shop for duplication products (or ‘dupes’) that replicate or simulate a luxury product at a lower price. In Korea, I found that the attributes of many of the products I’m familiar with weren’t common. Making it harder to distinguish what products I’d like. For example, I couldn’t find a ‘normal’ spooly (this thingspooly) for the longest time.
  • I definitely DISTINCTLY remember being disgusted at a face mask for containing snail slime. I shit you not. It wasn’t even like a special lil’ extra ingredient, it was the active ingredient!
  • Products that contain “weird” ingredients, never shy away from this on the packaging. I found them to usually contain pictures of the main ingredient on the packaging, rather than relying upon language.
  • Having still not read the ingredients lists for a lot of the products (only a few contained English instructions), I would also have no idea if the pictures were accurate or not.
  • In the places where I mostly shop for beauty products (Priceline, Mecca, Coles, Woolworths) I haven’t noticed (or they don’t have) any Korean brands. I will more carefully look at places of origin from now.


  • Applying a central focus to the marketing activities of players in the Korean beauty industry


  • Conduct field studies by purchasing a number of Korean beauty products from a number of different sources. See if I can find dupes of beloved Australian products in K-Beauty and vice-versa. Affordability? Claims? Do they work?


  • In addition to this, I would like to source K-beauty products from a Korean-hosted website, among other sources. Incorporating the local market will make for a better analysis.


  • One of my main concerns surrounding this project proposal is that I don’t want to be derivative of other research within the area. For this reason, personal reflections that accompany product trials will be imperative. Ellis (2010, p.2) recognizes that as a method, autoethnography combines characteristics of autobiography and ethnography. In autoethnographic research, an author retroactively and selectively writes about past experiences. These experiences are assembled using hindsight and in this project would be most effective accompanied by photos, videos, journals and other recordings.


  • As I see it, a combination of factors have cultivated the global emergence of the Korean beauty industry and its ideals. I want to explore these factors in detail.


  • I want to explore the products, conduct case studies on the integrated marketing and communications activities of Korean brands, conduct interviews or focus group sessions. I would like to conduct interviews with consumers of beauty products that seek to use Korean products exclusively, among other groups.


  • In particular, scholars began illustrating how the “facts” and “truths” scientists “found” were inextricably tied to the vocabularies and paradigms the scientists used to represent them (Kuhn, 1996; Rorty, 1982) – There is a tonne of jargon relative to beauty products, and creating a ‘beauty bible dictionary’ on my site is one way I want to explore the implications of this.


  • The platform I’d ideally like to present my research project on is in the form of a WordPress blog; the integration of navigation menus will allow for a non-linear style browsing. I feel that this will best reflect the auto-ethnographic style of the research. Letting viewers choose what aspect of Korean beauty interests them initially will lead to a more natural flow of interaction and reader engagement with the website. I want the site to mirror the key attributes that I look for in an ideal beauty product; practicality and aesthetic appeal. I also want it to have an element of luxury, how I perceive Korean a lot of beauty products.


  • Using techniques of “showing” which are designed to “bring readers into the scene” can be conveyed through click-through images. Demonstration will also be a key aspect of my medium, as I would like to film a series of short artful beauty tutorials


  • Within the medium, there must be a consistent focus on Korean culture. Case studies and anecdotal evidence will reflect this.


  • The purpose of this focus is “to help facilitate understanding of a culture for insiders and outsiders, and is created by (inductively) discerning patterns of cultural experience—repeated feelings, stories, and happenings—as evidenced by field notes, interviews, and/or artefacts” (Ellis, 2010)

This autoethnographic research isn’t central only to how K-Beauty products stack up to the brands that we have in Australia, but I would like the scope of this project to also include cultural and behavioural variances in the way products are used and also marketed. I would like to explore Korean beauty brands IMC activities on a local (profiling both Korea & Australia) and international basis.


Ellis, C; Adams, T E. & Bochner, A P. 2010. Autoethnography: An Overview. Qualitative Social Research, vol. 12 no. (1),

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