How to create a Korean-inspired beauty brand?

Cosmetics Business talks to Oh K! CEO, Tim Wright about what it takes to create a Korean-inspired beauty brand. Full article below...

K-beauty has reached cult status and today is as common a sight on the shelves of luxury retailers as on the high street. But what does it take to create your own Korean-inspired beauty company?

It's no secret that South Korean beauty is the industry's latest love affair – but it's a misnomer to think that innovation is limited to brands from Asia. K-beauty has inspired NPD from companies around the world, successfully catching the attention of consumers with authentic yet playful spins on the real deal.

One such brand is Oh K!, which offers a 'kawaii' take on the traditional ten step Korean skin care regime. Tim Wright is the CEO of NPW Gifts, the company responsible for creating the brand. A specialist in the impulse gifting market, NPW is behind brands such as Hello Handsome Muscle Miniatures and even creates unicorn shower caps.

Here he talks to Cosmetics Business about how to spot key trends earlier, why K-beauty has been such a hit and what it takes to set up a Korean-inspired beauty brand.

What do you consider when developing impulse beauty products?

Increasingly as we develop brands, Oh K! being one of them, we look at editing beauty trends.

For example, Korean beauty has ten plus steps and clearly in the West there are different expectations to skin care, so we’ve just edited the Korean process.

But it’s really all about content. When I was working for Warner Brothers, I always said to my staff that our product is entertainment.

The same goes for beauty, many of the products people buy in beauty are not fundamentally important to their lives, but they still buy them in huge them in quantities as part of their entertainment.

How would you describe your impulse strategy? What makes a beauty consumer buy on impulse?

That’s really interesting, because we see ourselves as a trend-led business, rather than a beauty-led business. We have a huge range of stationery, a huge range of inflatables, because pool parties are huge thing now. But it’s fundamentally trends that we work with. Of course, we really understand the beauty industry because we’ve been doing it for so long and our team has come from major beauty manufacturers.

We understand how to make trends work for retailers, whether that’s ranges of unicorns at Paperchase or Mermaids at Topshop, it doesn’t really matter what the trends are. But the products themselves have to be incredible to make that display and that proposition.

So for us it’s about putting the trend first and building a product range around that are relevant to a specific trend. It wouldn’t be relevant to do a unicorn face mask, but it is relevant to do an Oh K!-derived Korean animal face mask, because that’s fundamentally part of that trend.

"We shop the world. We’re big shoppers in this business."

So how do you identify trends?

It’s the biggest thing we do in the business actually, we’re at least two years ahead. Our single biggest budget is our travel budget, we spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on travel to keep visiting different markets.

We have a Head of Creative who joined us from Hallmark cards and we produce a trend pack every quarter. We also work with retailers and other partners to help guide us. We shop the world. We’re big shoppers in this business. Whether it’s Seattle or Seoul, we’re in those markets on a monthly basis looking at what those emerging trends are.

Why do you think Oh K! has proven to be a success?

We’re not normally surprised when something is successful. But we are shocked this time at how well Oh K! has been received in US, Europe and Asia. Why do I think it’s successful? We’ve simplified a difficult traditional Korean regime and presented it in a more conventional Western way.

Why do you think K-beauty has taken off as it has?

The complication element people do find intriguing. Obviously, social media has helped drive it a lot as well and maybe it’s also because there has been a lack of true innovation from European and US beauty houses. I also think beauty is ageing younger, we see Oh K! as our core brand for the 18-21 market.

I’ve got two daughters, eight and ten, and this will be something in their sweet spot, they’re getting to that experimental stage and Oh K! is a next step into that. I’ve seen them try snail masks and gold masks on when they’re watching The Only Way Is Essex.

Younger people are also so social media savvy, they’ve been able to connect with Asia and global trends.

What are the challenges when creating Korean-inspired beauty?

The challenge is always about compliance and it’s important to understand it completely. If not, it will stop your business from growing.

If you can’t develop a compliant product, whether that’s from a social and ethical standpoint or from a tech product compromise, then you’re going to come up against a wall. Some of the extreme ingredients you get in Korea, are still too extreme for the Western market.

We did a lot of research on whether snail would work in Europe? There are so many negative connotations to snails, but it has worked and is one of our best sellers. But then there’s things like horse oil in Korea – that could be too far. Unique ingredients are fundamental to K-beauty, but you can’t go so far that the shopper is completely turned off.