Kim Hyun-joong is looking at you. From a poster outside of a hair salon, from a shop window, in a TV commercial or on local social media sites, the South Korean singer and actor decorates various advertisements in Phnom Penh.
But it isn’t just about his music – it’s about a popular lifestyle and the art of making business out of it. Hyun-joong serves as a figurehead for shops that are swimming with the “Hallyu”, or “Korean Wave”: the popularity of the country’s culture that is spreading all over Asia.
Boosted by the attractiveness of Hallyu, South Korean-made cosmetics products – hair, skin and face care – have become top-sellers on the continent, and it seems like the Cambodian market is the next to be conquered.
“Cambodia is presently being hit by the Korean Wave, which has been very favourable for our beauty products to enter the market,” says Row Sopheavy, marketing manager of The Face Shop Cambodia on Sihanouk Boulevard.
“People here are obsessed with the Korean dramas and K-pop. Many of them yearn for the lifestyle of the popular stars, including intensive skincare and make-up every day.”
Data by the Korea Pharmaceutical Traders Association shows that exports of Korean-made cosmetics accounted for $1.067 billion in 2012, up 30.3 per cent from a year earlier.
In the first quarter of this year, Cambodia imported cosmetics products worth $9.9 million, an increase of 130 per cent compared with the same period last year, data by the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce show
Seoul-based The Face Shop opened their first store in City Mall in August 2010. Now they have four locations in Phnom Penh, and one in Battambang that opened earlier this year, making them the largest South Korean cosmetics brand in Cambodia.
In total, they count more than 2,100 stores in 23 countries.
It’s not uncommon to see images of Hyun-joong and fellow stars portrayed as role models of beauty in Phnom Penh and elsewhere in Asia, where advertisements with singers and TV shows glamorise the life of a South Korean idol.
Sopheavy says the culture is penetrating Cambodia’s society, and the so-called ‘beautiful determines everything’ perception of South Koreans has crept into the minds of locals, especially young women. This, she says, opens the door for a cosmetics coup.
Following the same marketing formula as The Face Shop, South Korean-owned Nature Republic also has a growing overseas presence, with one store in Phnom Penh’s night market and products on shelves in the city’s department stores and malls. The shops are joined by three branches of the South Korea chain Missha, and one Tony Moly shop.
Cambodia’s beauty business is gradually growing as incomes are rising and the country’s middle-class increases.
On a recent afternoon, Chan Naysim, a 20-year-old university student in the Sihanouk Boulevard branch of The Face shop, uses testers of moisturisers and toners displayed in the skincare section. She said she’s attracted by the natural and organic formula of the products.
“I love their Mango Seed Facial butter. I love the smell and I feel like my skin is getting smoother.”
While the price for skincare and cleansing products are high for students (they range from $8 to $15 a bottle), she says she can stretch one product to last her for than a month Sim Sovanratana, director of EL Skin & Wellness Center in Phnom Penh, said Cambodians are willing to pay more for beauty care and make-up styling, assured by the fancy packaging and standout images of South Korean brands.
Sopheavy, however, says she doesn’t want to talk up Hallyu too much, in case customers who haven’t been lured into the craze think that’s all there is to buy.
“The Korean wave is only a supportive factor for our development,” she said. “We offer healthy and [high] quality products at a reasonable price range that suits the Asian skin type, which is our main selling point.”
But the Korean Wave must count for something – she said she will opening five more branches by the end of 2014.