While the K-beauty and J-beauty industries boast some of the world’s biggest beauty conglomerates, Taiwan’s indie beauty brands have growing global ambitions.
With a heavy focus on skin care, Taiwan beauty brands are making a push into global markets to get in on the ongoing worldwide Asian beauty craze. While they may not have the scale of an Amorepacific or a Shiseido, they’re working on branding themselves with a unique “T-beauty” angle.
T-beauty is “a newer, emerging category” in the U.S. market, said Annie Wang, who founded U.S.-based Asian beauty e-tailer Glowie Co after working in corporate at Sephora. The 2 1/2-year-old site stocks not only K-beauty and J-beauty brands, but also brands from Taiwan. “It’s pretty hard to find T-beauty products online,” she said.
Inspired by the rapid rise of K-beauty, Taiwanese brands are setting their own course for global expansion. Taiwan-based organic skin-care brand Inna Organic, for example, distributes its sheet masks, as well as other skin, body and hair-care products to 22 countries via DTC e-commerce. While slightly over 50% of its sales are domestic, it is eyeing the North America market for growth, said its co-founder Jimmy Wang.
The U.S. market is attractive because there are “enough people loving and knowing about clean and organic beauty, so there’s a target audience,” said Jimmy Wang. In September, Inna Organic launched at the Allure Store in NYC, hosting an influencer event complete with Taiwanese specialties bubble tea and pineapple cakes.
But differentiation has sometimes been challenging. When Inna participates in trade shows in the U.S. and Europe, “people coming to our booth and looking at the sheet masks always ask, ‘Are you from Korea?’ even though we say we’re from Taiwan,” said Jimmy Wang.
While major retailers like Sephora stock T-beauty brands globally, they remain harder to find in the U.S. for now. Taipei-based hair-care brand SH-RD, for example, is stocked at Sephora in Brazil, with plans to enter Malaysia and Singapore this year. Its goal is to make its way into Sephora or Ulta in the U.S., as well.
Brands have been taking a variety of approaches to distinguish themselves as T-beauty. Inna Organic, for example, uses local ingredients such as a seaweed from Taiwan’s shores. Glowie Co, meanwhile, stocks face masks inspired by bubble tea, which was invented in Taiwan.
Other T-beauty brands take a much more international approach to their branding.
“We don’t limit ourselves to what’s from Taiwan because we want to get the highest quality supply,” said Artemis Tsai, the co-founder of SH-RD. While some ingredients such as ginger and filtered seawater are sourced from Taiwan, other ingredients including rosemary and reishi mushrooms are sourced elsewhere. “We actually look at [ingredients worldwide] and then we choose which one is the top quality one.”
T-beauty is also generally more minimalist than K-beauty, eschewing the 10-step routine, said Annie Wang. “T-beauty is more similar to Japanese beauty [than K-beauty], in the sense that it’s a more basic skin-care routine.”
While South Korea and Japan are known for their beauty conglomerates, Taiwan’s beauty scene is more about independent brands. “In Taiwan, the beauty scene is more indie, startup and smaller brands,” said Annie Wang.
With companies such as Apple manufacturer Foxconn, Taiwan’s economic trajectory as a source of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) is similar to that of South Korea. Thanks to more development, both economies have undergone the shift from creating export goods for foreign brands to exporting their own homegrown brands.
“Over the past few decades, Taiwan has really built up its manufacturing prowess,” said Annie Wang. “That’s why we’re seeing T-beauty become a bigger thing, because these manufacturers are now creating their own brands and doing their own marketing.”
Many brand founders have backgrounds in manufacturing. Jimmy Wang, for example, was a semiconductor engineer before finding his “passion in organic products, including food, lifestyle and skin care,” he said.
But Korean culture and brands were exported with government support, which T-beauty proponents say is not the case in Taiwan.
“With Korea, it’s very good to learn from the country’s marketing, but they did have a lot of government support,” said Tsai, referring to the overall efforts behind the “Korean wave,” or Hallyu culture, that has swept the world. That includes not only K-beauty, but also K-pop groups such as Blackpink and BTS, and movies and TV shows like “Parasite” and “Squid Game.”
“The South Korean government did help a lot of these manufacturers get bigger and export their products worldwide, which was a really smart move on their part,” said Annie Wang.
Many T-beauty brands are eyeing growth in North America, Europe and Southeast Asia, while remaining hesitant about expansion plans in mainland China. Distinguishing T-beauty as separate from “C-beauty,” or Chinese beauty brands from mainland China, runs the risk of getting politicized.
“The government in China is very focused on the One-China Policy and that gets echoed throughout Chinese society,” said Annie Wang. Brands selling in mainland China with “Made in Taiwan” branding have been known to face boycotts. “Sometimes these Taiwanese brands just want to avoid that. And the way they get around that is they just don’t distribute their products in China,” she said. Political issues have been known to impact beauty brands in the past. For example, China’s anti-missile system dispute with South Korea several years ago dealt a blow to K-beauty sales.
Inna Organic only distributes cross-border e-commerce shipments via a Hong Kong distributor in mainland China. According to Jimmy Wang, this is due to animal testing requirements on direct imports rather than political considerations.
SH-RD, meanwhile, operates a factory in mainland China in order to sell there.
Overall, T-beauty brand owners see bigger-picture potential for the spread of the beauty category to have a broader impact on Taiwan as a center for cultural export, as K-beauty has helped to do for South Korea.
“We want to use this opportunity to also promote the culture of Taiwan — the soft impact we can bring to the world. We can help the world with positive energy, not only from semiconductor products, chips and bubble tea. We want to bring the unique Taiwanese ingredients to the world, as well.” said Jimmy Wang.