HOW KOREAN CONSUMERS FORCED BRANDS TO RECONSIDER SKIN TONE DIVERSITY
We analysed 143,000 Naver posts by Korean beauty enthusiasts over 10 years to see how the Personal Colour trend evolved to have the scale and influence it has today.
Analysis by Amy Lim and Audrey Tsen Data analysis by Xiao Shuang Na Words by Michelle Lee Design by Rakeeza Sheren
Last year, over 31,000 posts discussed ‘Personal Colour’ on Naver, Korea’s leading social media platform. The term is widely referenced in Korean makeup YouTube videos and by e-commerce and offline retail stores.
Personal Colour is the art of identifying your skin tone to find the colours that complement it. The right shades make you look luminous and give you a healthy glow, while the wrong shades make you look sickly and dull.
Today, K-beauty brands develop their portfolio around this concept, with product ranges tailored to suit different “seasons” of Asian skin tones. It’s a far cry from ten years ago when brands catered to only two shades, pushing the online beauty community to investigate more sophisticated ways to understand colour.
We used Synthesis’ proprietary trend model to track Personal Colour through the four phases of a trend’s life cycle: Traces, Traction, Momentum, and Tipping.
Using open data (search, social media, e-commerce) and content analysis (what people and brands are saying), let’s travel through the trend’s manifestations over time.
Early signs in makeup conversations, 2012-2014
The terms ‘Cool tone (쿨톤)’ and ‘Warm tone (웜톤)’ start rising in online makeup social conversations.
Beauty mavens (amateur enthusiasts with small followings) lead the discussion. Understanding of skin tones remains binary and ordinary consumers struggle to identify whether their skin is cool or warm.
Expressions echo similar themes from adjacent categories such as haircare and fashion, where consumers are already familiar with colouring their hair or choosing clothes based on skin tone .
Hair stylists increasingly search for “personal colour certification courses” , and there is a rise in small businesses offering Personal Colour consulting services.
Despite low post volume within the makeup category, the combination of signals from adjacent categories and high engagement from beauty mavens is a strong sign this is an enduring trend, not a fad.
Personal Colour starts to gain mainstream interest (2015-2016)
Between 2015 to 2016, Personal Colour begins gathering traction. Naver post volume doubles, and the conversation diversifies. While the topic is still discussed mainly by beauty mavens, larger influencers begin joining in.
Interest in colour theory from mainstream audiences grows, and beauty mavens step in to provide guidance. Posts  begin providing a more comprehensive understanding of personal colour, using the language of “seasons” - spring, summer, autumn, winter - to describe skin tones in more detail.
Daring, bright colours like red and hot pink start trending as Korean women experiment with a wider range of lip colours . Realizing that certain bold shades look good on some but not others, consumers turn to colour theory for explanations.
As makeup users become more sophisticated, the desire for more personalized shade options emerges. Colour theory becomes a useful way of evaluating how makeup colors compliment skin tone.
Hype begins to scale (2017 to 2018)
By 2017, Personal Colour has become an established way of navigating foundation shades.
Mavens and influencers start using undertones to navigate foundation choice, introducing the language of yellow and blue undertones as skin colour profiles.
Consumers have a greater awareness of the concept of Personal Colour, driven by increased access to affordable colour testing services both online and offline, with makeup giant Etude House offering in-store analysis.
As understanding of skin tones grows, so does dissatisfaction with available foundation offerings. Mainstream Korean brands typically offer 2 shades (21, a light cool-toned shade, or 23, a darker warm-toned shade) , assuming Korean skin tones lack variation. International brands have larger shade ranges, but few shades suited to Asian skin.
Faced with limited options, consumers turn to colour theory to determine the most flattering shades available. Brands also start expanding their shade ranges in response.
The new normal (2019-2020)
In 2020, Personal Colour becomes a new norm in the beauty category.
For Korean consumers, ‘warm tone and cool tone’ has become a north star to navigate beauty and choose their lipstick, blush, and foundation. They share a spectrum of stories: from their journey of discovering their Personal Colour , adventures in trying different shades and tones, to tutorials on mixing shades to create a product tailored to their skin.
From the product side, brands have integrated color theory into innovation pipelines, adopted the language of colour theory in communications, and begun creating content to help guide consumers through right shade and tone variants.
Popular local and international brands like Etude House and Estée Lauder now categorize their new product launches by warm, neutral, and cool tone . New products are named after the skin tones they suit, making it easy for consumers to pick the right product for them.
What’s next for Personal Colour?
The rise of Personal Colour is an example of how consumer conversation can push brands to meet consumer needs.
Faced with brands’ limited understanding of skin tones, Korean beauty enthusiasts developed their own way to navigate makeup offerings using colour theory. The concept of Personal Colour shifted the category paradigm, from product innovation to marketing and messaging.
Korean beauty brands still have room to grow. With K-beauty’s popularity steadily rising worldwide, there is increasing pressure on brands to further expand their shade range to be more inclusive to global consumers.
But - from just 2 shades to a rainbow of undertones over the past decade - the Personal Colour trend shows no sign of slowing down. Who knows how it will colour our world next?
About Our Trend Model
Brand marketers and product innovation teams need to know well in advance before a trend like Personal Colour becomes a mainstream concept, so they can design products and communication that respond to new consumer needs.
Knowing a trend’s trajectory lets us tell you the best time to act. We base our analysis not just on volume of chatter, but by looking at adjacent categories and who’s driving the conversation.
By looking at multiple signals, we help our partners distinguish fads from enduring shifts in a category, giving them the confidence to invest. We can help you understand whether this trend - and others like it - will spread to other markets.
Interested in partnering with us? Drop us a line at email@example.com to find out what we can do for you.
1. 2,388 Naver posts mention the phrase ‘personal colour hair’ (퍼스널 컬러 헤어) between January 2012 and December 2014.
2. Between January 2012 and December 2014, there are 1,904 posts on “personal colour consulting”, soaring to a cumulative total volume of 27,986 by August 2020.