How the Semioscape of K-Beauty has got the new generation of Indian women hooked

Hamsini Shivakumar of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting writes about how K-Beauty has changed the rules of the beauty care game in metro India

Hamsini Shivakumar
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The small country of South Korea has made its presence felt in India’s consumer culture over time.  They came in first with Samsung and LG and their white goods. Then they came in with Hyundai and cars. The hard stuff first. And now they have brought in their soft power with K-Drama, K-Pop and K-Beauty. K-Beauty has made significant headway with the younger generations due to influencer marketing and e-commerce, which has made Korean beauty products highly desirable and accessible.

More than the purchase of products, what’s interesting to note is the reshaping of beauty culture.  Culture can be thought of in two ways, the lived culture of practices and rituals (what consumers do) and the conceptual architecture, embedded in a shared imaginary (the symbolism that shapes what consumers want – their beliefs and expectations).

When we examine the world of K-Beauty from a semiotic perspective, we can quickly identify the building blocks of the conceptual architecture which we can call the Semioscape. These are:

  • Glass skin – a type of ideal skin state valorised by Korean culture
  • The 10-step skincare regimen
  • The sheet mask product as something unique to Korea
  • The promise of healthy skin from within
  • Minimalist packaging design and lastly
  • The impossibly beautiful stars of K-Drama 

These building blocks of K-Beauty are evangelised by Influencers on YouTube and other social media platforms and channels. The influencers could be Korean, Indian or Western.

When we study these six symbols carefully, we can see that they exactly follow the codes of beauty marketing in consumer culture. There is an ideal skin state to aim for - this ideal skin state has a name, a visual look and celebrities who embody the ideal skin state. There is a process to be followed diligently and in a disciplined way. This gives hope to users and also puts the control into their hands – that you too can have glass skin if you are disciplined and consistent in your effort.  Finally, there is a clear answer to the question of beauty for whom? Or why make so much of an effort? The simple answer given is that it is beauty for you, for your inner wellbeing and outer self-confidence. Be healthy from within first to bring the best of you out into the world.

Influencer videos are educational where the skincare influencer/celebrity teaches her followers the 10 step K-beauty regimen. The fundamental difference between Korean influencers and celebrities ‘teaching’ videos and those of Indian/American ‘teaching’ videos arises from the Insider-Outsider cultural binary. Koreans are educated (indoctrinated?) into the K-beauty, Korean skincare Semioscape and they accept it; they don’t question it. Therefore, Korean influencers try to engage their audiences, viewing their videos by cracking jokes, making faces, acting out a bit. It’s like viewing an ‘in-joke’ shared by the members of the culture.

K-pop Star Somi’s night time skincare routine | Go to bed with me

Indian influencers are outsiders to Korea and the K-Beauty culture. They approach the K-Beauty Semioscape with curiosity and some doubt or skepticism. In this respect, they believe they are giving voice to the questions that their Indian audiences would have. This holds for American influencers as well. That’s why many of their videos are titled, I tried the 10-step K-Beauty regimen for one week or two weeks or four weeks, to see how much of a difference it makes to MY skin. The typical points of resistance, often expressed as the ‘challenge’ are the patience, discipline and most of all, time required to follow such a detailed and exhaustive skincare regimen, every single day, even twice a day. There is a morning routine and a night-time routine. Most of these influencer trials are done at night, when the influencer herself is able to make the time and she presumes, her audience would too.  

Shocked!! I tried 10 step Korean skincare routine!! Is glass skin Real?

How to get glass skin? | 8 step Korean skincare routine |

The second point of resistance is buying so many different products and the costs involved. Also, the ability to access all authentic Korean brands and their products.  Some influencers have done a mix and match of more affordable Korean brands and Indian/Western brands.

My 11 step Korean skincare routine using affordable Indian products

Even Korean influencers realise that a 10-12 step regimen might be too much for non-Korean audiences and hence propose a more practical and do-able 5 step routine, extracting the most essential 5 steps from the elaborate 10-12 step routine. This is often packaged as the ‘Beginner’s Routine’ to suggest that a 5 step routine is the entry point into K-Beauty culture and a lot lies ahead for the beauty seeking audience.

Korean skincare for Beginners

Where do Indian influencers net out on the K-Beauty Semioscape after all their trials and experiments?  All claim to be ‘sold’ on K-Beauty, to varying degrees. There are those who are complete converts, because they long for the kind of skin that K-Serial and K-Pop stars have, both men and women. Glass skin is the dream that they have ‘bought’ into. There are others who say that ‘glass skin’ is a myth.  “My Indian skin is never going to turn into Korean glass skin, in terms of the everyday state of skin.” Never-the-less, the whole regimen is a case of extreme pampering and care of one’s skin, a totally indulgent experience that leaves skin feeling totally clean, moisturised, plump and healthy.  The skincare ritual of K-Beauty is something that is worth adopting into one’s skincare efforts, albeit not used every day.

For cultures that are not based on diligence and discipline at the core (e.g. Indian culture) and where social conformity is always running up against the counter pull of individual choice, the core of K-Beauty, the 10-12 step process is too onerous and too much of a challenge to adhere to.  

Never-the-less, many other elements of the K-Beauty Semioscape have tremendous appeal.  I expect that a whole young generation of urban Indian girls and women are going to grow up under the spell of K-Beauty, Korean skincare products and make their own adaptation to the same.  The fall-out will be on the mass and mass premium Indian and global skincare brands which might now appear to be too ordinary and low quality.  Their claims of effectiveness and ‘all-in-one’ benefits and performance might also seem to be overclaims and not credible. Whether or not 10-step rituals are followed, the Semioscape of K-Beauty has changed the rules of the beauty care game in metro India.

influencers Hamsini Shivakumar Leapfrog Strategy Consulting advertising marketing Indian K-Beauty K-pop Korean culture South Korea makeup