Sarah Lee and Christine Chang co-founded Glow Recipe, the popular online retailer and beauty brand, to help American consumers make sense of everything from sheet masks to snail essence in 2014, when the Korean beauty (or K-beauty) trend in this country began to take off. Read below for my conversation with Sarah Lee and learn more about the K-beauty skincare/self-care connection.
Katie Couric: You started a beauty company that straddles two cultures — Korean and American. What made you want to do that?
Sarah Lee: Though I have lived over a decade in New York and consider it my home, I am also Korean and will always have a deep and abiding love for my Korean heritage. I was fortunate to have been exposed to an international background in my youth; I was born in Seoul and attended an international school in Hong Kong before moving to the United States to work for a French company. Bringing cultures together naturally became something I developed a strong passion for–embracing the beauty in our differences while celebrating our commonalities. Bridging Korean and American traditions through a common love for beauty and self-care was something my co-founder Christine and I were uniquely positioned to do and remains core to Glow Recipe’s mission today.
There’s K-Pop for Korean pop music and now KB for Korean beauty. How and why did skin care become such a huge industry in South Korea?
The origin of beauty as an industry goes back centuries to the historical roots of Korean society. And skincare interest has been documented since the earliest Korean writings, and the Dongui Bogam, an ancient Korean medicinal text, has an entire section on preparation and use of herbal ingredients, including for skin concerns. Skincare rituals have been a key part of Korean women’s lifestyles, with self-care traditions and techniques passed down through generations. In Korea, skincare is not seen as superficial or an act of vanity. Like a well-balanced diet or exercise, it is considered a key component of a healthy lifestyle.
Predictably, this depth of history and tradition has resulted in a well-informed, highly demanding, and adventurous customer base. In order to be relevant and successful, Korean beauty companies must persistently push the boundaries of beauty science and marketing. Out of sheer necessity, Korea has become (arguably) the most advanced and innovative beauty market in the world.
Whether through pop music (K-Pop), television (K-dramas), or beauty, Korea has a well-documented history as a cultural trendsetter in Asia. The acceleration of globalization, fueled by the internet and social media, has reinforced Korea’s status as not just a regional but global epicenter of the next big thing – whether that be the latest Psy single or watermelon infused mask ;).
Are attitudes toward beauty and skin care different in South Korea than they are in the United States?
Koreans place an important emphasis on having glowing, youthful skin from the inside out – it is an ideal beauty standard in South Korea. And the approach to skincare is holistic and focuses on preventative vs reparative – it is all about consistency and achieving results over time, rather than dramatically and instantly getting rid of acne or wrinkles.
As recently as a few years ago, U.S. consumers were more conservative and structured in the way they viewed skincare and what they expected from their purchases. Skincare was often perceived as a chore, and not something enjoyable. Consumers demanded instant results and focused on repairing issues. With the acceleration in innovative products with new textures and formats coming to market, it has been exciting to watch American consumption patterns evolve and adapt to be more adventurous and open-minded.
How did you build your company and what experience did you rely on to start it?
The seeds for Glow Recipe were planted one evening when my co-founder Christine and I were de-stressing over a glass of wine and sheet masks. In 2014, K-beauty was on the cusp of exploding in the US. Our expertise as global marketers and developers, coupled with our combined 20 years of bi-cultural beauty industry experience uniquely positioned us to bridge the gap between brands in Korea and the US consumer.
Many K-beauty brands at the time were being sold with a more promotional, discount-focused approach, instead of storytelling the performance and innovation behind the products. Despite K-beauty being a hot search term, consumers did not really understand what it meant or were misinformed about it being an overwhelming, complicated 10-15 step routine. We wanted to break down what K-beauty was truly about, which is a holistic, fun, effective approach to skincare and self-care. This remains core to our messaging today.
What’s the mantra of your company?
Our mantra began with introducing best-in-class K-beauty innovations and trends, and making them accessible to American consumers through repositioning and education. With the birth of Glow Recipe Skincare, our namesake brand, in 2017, our goal was to combine unexpected skincare pairings that aim to harness super fruits with effective ingredients. I have found that textures, more than other elements, really bring out the sensorial element of a routine and drive the visceral response that comes from an experience that is truly enjoyable.
Glow Recipe coined the term “skintertainment” in 2015 to describe this experience. With the right product, your beauty routine should be a little slice of sunshine in your day. Pampering your skin and yourself should be enjoyable and fun, not a chore. ‘Skintertainment’ is also encouraged and empowered via its social aspect. For example, sheet masks have become a global beauty phenomenon. A long time staple in the Korean beauty routine, many people view masking and sheet masking as an act of socially shareable self-care – for example, our #maskeverywhere campaign encouraged our community to break the boundaries of when and where one could mask and enjoy skincare.
Where can people buy your products?
Glow Recipe Skincare can be found on glowrecipe.com, Sephora.com and all Sephora stores nationwide. In August 2018, we launched online and in-store at Sephora Canada. Our Glow Recipe curated brands can be found on glowrecipe.com.
How has social media helped you spread the word about your brands?
From the very beginning, we have been a digital-first brand. We understood the importance of brand messaging, aesthetic, and social presence as so much of today’s dialogue around beauty happens online. The social beauty community is incredibly supportive and powerful, and one of our core objectives is navigating through the avalanche of advertising and self-serving beauty marketing to provide objective and fact-based content. Social media is amazing as a mechanism for democratizing the spread of information. We do not need to pay millions for an ad campaign, if our content is compelling, people will organically find it and respond to it.
Education is the primary driver of content on our social channels. These can take the form of an Instagram post to introduce powerhouse ingredients, YouTube tutorials to show how to incorporate K-beauty into your routine, or an Instagram live session to answer any questions from our followers in real-time. Even our partnerships with retailers such as Sephora have been incredible opportunities to educate a broader audience through compelling content and digital/social platforms. We are proud to be a digital-first company that has been recognized for leveraging the power of social media and technology.
What are some of the most exciting trends you’re seeing in the beauty business in general?
I love the trend of global consumers demanding clean beauty as a non-negotiable characteristic for all brands. This goes back to the ongoing evolution of the consumer – because they are increasingly well-informed, educated, and sophisticated, there is greater scrutiny on the products they buy and the companies that make them. As an entrepreneur, I embrace this trend and see it as validation of Glow Recipe’s thesis, which always focused on prioritizing and emphasizing products that are clean, natural, and cruelty-free. As a beauty enthusiast myself, I love this as it will drive higher-quality formulations and ultimately a healthier experience for everyone.