This story first appeared in the summer issue of Digiday magazine, available exclusively to Digiday Plus members. Join the community and receive the full magazine here.
Appropriately, the idea for Glow Recipe was formed during one of founders Sarah Lee and Christine Chang’s frequent face sheet-masking sessions.
Two South Korean natives working in different departments of L’Oréal’s New York offices, Lee and Chang quickly bonded over their common backgrounds: Both are bilingual, bicultural and obsessed with keeping tabs on the developments and technologies continuously coming out of Korea’s $15 billion beauty and skin-care industry.
While at L’Oréal, those backgrounds led Lee and Chang to facilitating the launch of two Korea-born products: cushion compacts at Lancôme and facial essences at Kiehl’s.
Eventually, they both took a step back.
“We both said, ‘Isn’t this interesting that we’re the only two marketers in the U.S. that have this background, and we’re bringing over trends and technologies from Korea?’” says Lee. “We realized we could do it ourselves by partnering with the brands, not just the technologies.”
Bridging the beauty gap
Lee and Chang launched Glow Recipe in late 2014 as an e-commerce site selling a handful of Korean brands to the U.S. market of beauty and skin-care customers. Sharing profits with the brands they sell, the company brought in $1 million in sales in 2016, according to an update following the brand’s 2015 appearance on Shark Tank, the reality show for entrepreneurs. (The founders got an offer on the show, but ultimately declined it.)
“We understand the American consumer, as well as the beauty market in Korea,” says Lee. “We reinterpret what’s happening there into something that resonates with Americans. That’s our mission: to make K-beauty more accessible.”
They’re not the only ones riding K-beauty’s emergence in Western culture (in 2015, Korea’s cosmetics exports were worth $2.5 billion). Soko Glam and Peach and Lily are two of the leading online Korean beauty stores and blogs competing in the space.
But Glow Recipe has something that its competitors don’t: a partnership with Sephora. Some K-beauty brands vetted by the Glow Recipe team are sold at the chain.
“Glow Recipe is helping us discover new brands and trends as we scout the Asian beauty market,” says Priya Venkatesh, vp of skin care and hair at Sephora. “As a retailer, it’s critical that we use [that] to curate the right assortment.”
Glow Recipe has since ventured into two other business avenues: physical retail and product launches. It opened two pop-ups in 2016, one standalone and one in Saks Fifth Avenue. Its first two proprietary products, a cleanser and a sleeping mask, were released in May in their own store and at Sephora.
“For many Americans, this is an unknown market, and there’s an opportunity to guide the discovery of the skin care,” says Ashwin Deshmukh, insights director at the digital agency Hungry. “People might have misconceptions about the market, and they need that education.”
Navigating the regional nuances
While riding the rising Western interest in Korean beauty practices, Chang and Lee had to figure out how to make Korean skin care attractive to U.S. consumers. That meant repackaging and renaming products, and translating descriptions to fit into Western expectations. They also had to teach American customers about benefits and uses.
In the U.S., skin care is approached as reparative, while in Korea, it’s preventative. American products are made to emphasize one benefit each — anti-aging, exfoliating — for a certain skin type, like oily or combination.
“Koreans grow up with this cultural belief that if your skin is beautiful, you’re beautiful,” says Lee. “You need to have perfect skin to have perfect makeup. In the U.S., we don’t talk about this enough. The primary concern [with a skin-care product] is its benefits and if it’s worth your money.”
American brands have started to catch on to the skin care-first mindset. Glossier, which sells both skin care and beauty products, uses the catchphrase “skin care first, makeup second,” and other brands, like Tarte and Benefit, have built up their skin-care product arsenals.
“I want people to forget K-beauty as a category”
Over the past several years, mass-market brands like L’Oréal and Bioré have begun adapting Korean techniques and creating their own versions of products like pressed serums, cushion compacts and sheet masks.
Chang and Lee see this is as a sign that the Korean beauty market is gaining global traction, and proof that there’s a path for a selection of Korean skin-care products and brands to eventually work their way into the average American skin-care routine. That’s their goal.
“It’s not so much about K-beauty as it is about product innovation. Nobody calls Lancôme a French beauty product,” says Lee. “Ultimately I want people to forget K-beauty as a category. For us, and anyone else in this space, the key is to make sure we’re educating people in the right way, and making it easy and accessible.”