|Men's skin care products are on display inside an outlet of Laneige, a cosmetics firm from South Korea, at a shopping mall in Hong Kong December 3, 2012. Photo by Bobby Yip, Reuters
SEOUL - Their skin is smooth, their hair is salon-fresh, and between them they've sold millions of records. Now, they are making it acceptable for young Asian men to buy beauty products.
South Korea's male K-pop icons have been enlisted by the country's cosmetics firms as they try to expand beyond its borders to take on global giants like L'Oreal and Unilever across the continent.
"The male K-pop stars are very good looking and I think the make up helps them look good. So why not me as well?" said Lenard Heng, a 26-year old graphic designer, out clubbing in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
South Korean men spend $900 million a year on beauty products, more than a fifth of the global total, research firm Euromonitor says. But even the vanity of a nation is no longer much of a growth opportunity.
By contrast, in the emerging markets of Asia the middle class is rapidly expanding, and with it opportunities to sell goods like foundation, lip balm, skincare lotions and eyeliner. Demand for personal care products will rise by over 40 percent in China and Indonesia alone in the next five years, Euromonitor estimates.
In these flourishing economies, South Korean companies like Amorepacific Corp and LG Household & Healthcare Ltd want to establish themselves as premium products with a distinctly Asian sensibility.
"Using male K-pop stars charms the ladies. It may also prompt younger men to want to look more like these idols," said Kim Jungcheon, Chief Executive Officer of South Korean cosmetics firm Tonymoly.
For the region's young men who were raised on K-pop, the metrosexual appeal of South Korean boy bands like 2PM, Big Bang and Super Junior, their faces glowing with youth, is a quality Western or Japanese competitors cannot deliver.
"In Korea male stars use foundation so a few of my guy friends in Bangkok have started wearing foundation too," said 28-year-old Thai man Pitak Iamsamang.
WORKING THE LOOK
By pushing out into Asia, South Korean cosmetics firms are treading a path established by compatriot manufacturing giants Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and Hyundai Motor Co, which simply outgrew their rich but small home of 50 million people.
Cosmetics firms also hope to use the appeal of K-pop's divas to market their wares to women, still the core market for beauty products.
Slick acts like Girls' Generation, a group of nine women whose street-styled dance routines, long legs and infectious pop hooks have taken Asia by storm, all add to the aspirational pull of "Brand Korea".
"Cosmetics sales tend to mirror the popularity of Korean cultural exports, so K-pop stars are the best way to market our products," said Kim Hee-jeong, marketing manager of LG Household's The Face Shop, which has over 1,000 overseas stores.
Overall, South Korea's cosmetics market was worth $4.4 billion in 2011, according to the Korean Cosmetics Association, and is nearing saturation. Its exports, however, totalled just $775 million in 2011, dwarfed by L'Oreal, which sold $4.71 billion worth of goods in the Asia Pacific region.
Still, the total value of South Korean cosmetics exports has doubled since 2007, three-quarters of which went to China and Southeast Asia, data from the association showed.
Mass brands such as Amorepacific's Etude House and Tonymoly play up their origins by blaring out K-pop hits while sales agents chirp "annyeonghasaeyo" (hello) in stores from Ulan Bator to Manila, backed by posters of heart-throbs like boy band JYJ.
Women like Nattakarn Nattudee, a 35 year-old shopping for cosmetics in Bangkok, have bought into the K-pop sales pitch.
"Posters of Korean pop stars with their bright, clear faces make me want to buy the products so I can have clear skin like them," she said.