As the number of Chinese tourists visiting South Korea has plummeted in the wake of the dispute over the THAAD anti-missile system, K-beauty succumbed to political controversy with a steep drop in online buzz in China.
According to L2’s analysis of Baidu Index data, searches in May for Korean beauty brands declined 21% from the same period last year. This marks a dramatic change from their skyrocketing Baidu Index growth in December 2016, when searches were up 84% year-over-year and grew significantly faster than those for Japanese, Western, or Chinese brands.
While Korean brands’ Baidu Index growth surge came to a halt as the dispute heated up in January, they were still showing comparatively strong performance until China’s government banned Chinese tour groups entering South Korea in March. This caused K-beauty brands’ year-over-year Baidu Index change to move from growth into negative territory, plunging below that of brands from all other regions.
This decline has coincided with the decrease in Chinese visitors to South Korea following the ban—the number plunged by 40% year-over-year in March and 66.6% in April, according to the latest figures by the Korea Tourism Organization.
The Korean beauty industry is now pinning its hopes on a rebound after South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-in has struck a more conciliatory tone since taking office on May 10, announcing this week that South Korea would suspend THAAD. When Moon took office on May 10, Korean beauty giant AmorePacific’s shares increased to reach their highest point so far in 2017 on May 11. The company is heavily dependent on Chinese consumers, as China accounts for around 20% of its total sales.
It’s now time for brands to see how long the damage will last, as Korean brands held significant cache in China prior to the controversy. They have previously gained a boost from sponsorship deals with wildly popular K-pop groups and Korean TV shows that also fell victim to Chinese bans.
AmorePacific stated in May that it plans to diversify its international exposure by making a push into the U.S. and European markets this year. It also noted that Chinese consumers have still shown demand for its products even when they couldn’t visit South Korea, stating that its April China e-commerce sales rose by 40%—showing that a strong digital strategy is key for brands to be prepared for China’s volatile political climate.