Most consumer markets in China evolve under the mixed influences of local culture, Western lifestyle spreading globally as well as regional trends. In the latter Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong traditionally tend to be sources of inspirations for Chinese consumers but in recent years South Korea has really been the place of influence, especially among young generations.
This Korean “wind” is driven by popular culture. While everyone in the Western world probably only knows Psy and his famous Gangnam Style, Korean pop (Kpop) groups like EXO or actors Lee Min Ho or Kim Soo Hyun are superstars in China with tens of millions of followers on Weibo. And what do the people of Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu watch on their mobile phones while riding the bus to work? Korean TV series or K-drama, miniseries that run over just a few episodes and generate collective fascination.
This presence of Korean stars on Chinese screens drives aspiration for the Korean look: a perfectly oval face with large eyes for girls, a soft attitude but muscular shape for men, all in a discrete, fashionable, not too sexual style, more relatable and aspirational than many images spread by the Western culture.
Korean fashion and beauty brands benefit from this trend and have become major contenders for global and local players in China. Cosmetic brands like Etude House and Innisfree are seen as offering quality, accessible products specifically adapted to Asian skin, with a relatable communication style and the advanced digital literacy that Koreans and Chinese have in common. Building on their affinity with consumers who have the world’s most sophisticated make-up routines, Korean companies are also well positioned to develop new products that meet emerging needs. It is in Korea that were first launched the BB cream and CC cream that later spread to China and on to the whole world, a good example of how innovation no longer only flows from West to East but also more and more the opposite way.
Another big trend is cosmetic surgery. According to ChinaDaily 56000 Chinese people travelled to South Korea last year to undergo plastic surgery, more than 3 times the figure of the previous year. Inspired by Korean entertainment industry idols, Chinese consumers cross the Yellow Sea to undergo procedures such as double-eyelid surgery to gain Caucasian-style eyes, nose jobs leading to more prominent nose bridges and facial contouring to achieve an oval shape via shopping away bones. Travel agents are now offering plastic surgery based packages to Korea. And Korean surgery expertise is also moving to China as last year 37 South Korean owned plastic surgery clinics opened in Mainland.
This impressive impact of Korea on Chinese consumer behavior is a good reminder to Western brands of a couple of constant truths about the China market: consumer aspirations are specific, more complex and diverse than they may seem, and in order to succeed in what is now a super competitive market brands need to work on being relevant locally.