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Among the first brands to kickstart the unusual trend were South Korean cosmetic brand Tonymoly and Samyang instant noodles, which teamed up in 2018. Tonymoly released a capsule collection dubbed the “hot edition makeup collaboration”, inspired by Samyang’s Buldak Spicy Chicken Ramen flavour – now infamous for the spicy fire noodle challenge that was trending on YouTube at the time.
The full collection bundles Tonymoly sold, including the actual cup of ramen, became a viral hit locally. The collaboration had limited availability overseas, though, which prompted an online resale market where the products were being listed for twice, even thrice their retail value.
Just the year after, mega K-beauty brand Etude, one of many subsidiaries of leading Korean health and beauty conglomerate Amorepacific, made massive international waves when it partnered with KitKat on two eyeshadow palettes. The palettes didn’t just mimic the colours and packaging of the famous chocolate bar but also had the candy’s scent infused into the formulation of the shadows themselves. With a notably large international presence, the collection sold out shortly after its launch, catching the attention of American beauty gurus who rushed to review the products even without a PR handout.
Then came a string of other food and beauty partnerships, including fellow Innisfree with Mentos, The Face Shop with Coca-Cola, Etude with Hershey’s – the list goes on. And much like every other K-beauty trend, the collaboration format is now being replicated in other parts of Asia and even in the West, as Generation Z seeks more fun and quirky beauty products.
Winning the algorithm
You may think food and beauty make an unlikely pairing but the two have more in common than it seems. Both are solid content pillars for social media and driving forces for viral content, especially on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok.
The eccentric nature of these collaborations, coupled with their innovative packaging design, makes for the perfect unboxing video, tapping heavily into Gen Z’s consumer interests. Influencer marketing platform Tribe Dynamics’ co-founder and president, Conor Begley, commented, “One trend that we’ve observed in beauty overall over the past year is that creativity and humour are playing an increased role in influencer content, especially content from Gen Z creators.
“Influencers are moving away from the filtered, aspirational aesthetic previously popular on Instagram, and taking a more playful approach to makeup and content creation overall.”
Video reviews featuring some of the K-beauty/food collaborations have garnered millions of views on YouTube. Online beauty personality Jeffree Star’s video of the Etude x KitKat collaboration reached over 7 million views and his second video, featuring the Etude x Hershey’s collaboration, has exceeded 9 million views.
While YouTube remains a staple in the beauty scene, the main source of viral beauty trends is now TikTok. The video-sharing app and its Chinese counterpart, Douyin, hold a particularly tight grip on Asia’s Gen Z consumer base. As the platform with the largest number of engaged users in the world, it has been the source of megatrends in all facets of modern pop culture, with food and beauty among the most viewed niches on the platform.
The hashtag #food is one of the most viewed on TikTok, with more than 186 billion views. Equally impressive, hashtag #makeup has amassed 171 billion views on the platform. Many of the viral product recommendations from TikTok have translated into commercial success. From feta cheese to the Cerave moisturisers, these products have sold out and incurred shortages, at times for months on end, as suppliers have failed to manage the TikTok-induced fervour.
Despite K-beauty’s mass popularity, its foothold in the market is no longer as firm. Rising competition from neighbouring China and the pandemic’s impact on makeup sales across the board have dampened K-beauty’s influence abroad.
Amorepacific’s 2020 fiscal reports showed revenue was down 20 per cent to $3.9 billion, with the cosmetics sector falling 26 per cent year-on-year. Etude announced it would be closing most of its physical stores in China and other parts of Asia.
Political tensions and the pause on international travel to South Korea allowed many local Chinese beauty brands to grow exponentially over the last two years. Native brands like Perfect Diary and Florasis are using branding and marketing tactics similar to K-beauty’s. They pose a worthy threat to K-beauty cult favourites like Etude, The Face Shop and Innisfree.
Perfect Diary is China’s latest makeup export. It took a page directly out of the K-beauty book when it launched a collaboration with Oreo. Decked out in its made-for-Instagram packaging, the Oreo-themed cushion compacts were sold out within a day, the brand’s online store on JD.com stated.
International brands are also adopting the food x beauty craze for their localised marketing campaigns in Asia. Gen Z’s favourite Chinese bubble tea chain, Heytea, has become the go-to collaborator for international beauty brands such as Clarins, L’Oréal, Clinique and, most famously, Fenty Beauty, for product partnerships in China.
Fenty Beauty’s special collaboration with Heytea became one of the most viral Western beauty campaigns on China’s social platform Weibo, garnering 14 million views and over 30,000 comments following its launch.
The American spin-off
Nearly four years after the Tonymoly and Samyang instant noodle collaboration, the food and beauty crossover has arrived stateside.
In 2020, Indie makeup brand Hipdot debuted a special collaboration with Tapatio hot sauce. Along with the brands’ strong following and a robust PR rollout, Tribe Dynamics reported mentions of #Tapatio by influencers generated $193,000 EMV for Hipdot, across 27 posts, in the first month of its release. Seeing its first food-themed success, Hipdot continued its collaborative streak with Peeps and Reese’s, for more food-related makeup capsules this year.
Well-known drugstore cosmetics brand e.l.f. added to the food and beauty frenzy when it collaborated with fast-food chain Chipotle. The brands decided to join forces during the early days of TikTok, when they were among the first few corporations to have a presence on the platform.
The vice-president of e.l.f., Gayitri Budhraja, stated, “The [idea] was, ‘Let’s figure out how to force multiply with another like-minded, spirited disrupter.’ Both of us are very Gen Z-focused. Both brands have a cultural following. We also knew that both brands were digital disruptors.”
The marketing alliance paid off instantly. The first product drop, in May of 2020, sold out in less than four minutes. “There were consumers that were calling our customer service and crying when we sold out,” Budhraja said. This prompted the duo to launch a second product drop with new items added to the initial four-piece collection. Chipotle also launched a special menu item in conjunction with the release.
Just a gimmick or a recipe for success?
There’s a litany of food and beauty collaborations in the pipeline, as these unexpected partnerships have unlocked a Gen Z cheat code. Similar to the cross-brand pollination we have seen in the fashion industry, leveraging two of the most popular niches on the internet has presented an opportunity for brands with similar values to synergise their digital efforts, simultaneously boosting engagement and reaching a wider audience.
Judging by previously successful collaborations, the more unlikely the pairing, the more buzz it can generate. And the overlap does not have to stop at food. During this past year, we have also seen beauty partnerships with video games, TV shows, art museums and more. The next evolution of collaborations may even take the form of a three-way partnership; they’ve already begun to sprout in China.
As shared by Chipotle’s vice-president of digital marketing, Tressie Lieberman, these collaborations are a great vehicle to keep Gen Z on its toes: “We’re always looking for ways to lead culture and stay top of mind among Gen Z consumers.”