Why Word Choice Matters in Beauty Translation

Beauty products displayed in a spa setting

Let’s take a look at one product launched by the beloved South Korean skincare brand COSRX, and how a professional translator familiar with their target market might have saved them some trouble.

A Product Name Story in 3 Parts

Back in 2015, a K-beauty blogger by the name of Holy Snails reached out to COSRX with some concerns over the name of one of their products, specifically the Galactomyces 95 White Power Essence, a watery, toner-like product which, according to Soko Glam, “contains 95% galactomyces ferment filtrate, a favorite skin care ingredient among Korean women, to hydrate, brighten, and smooth skin all at once.”

The issue with the name is immediately apparent to American English speakers — white power is a phrase used by the white supremacist community.

To their credit, the COSRX team did eventually respond, acknowledging the issue and changing the product name to Galactomyces 95 Whitening Power Essence. Interestingly, they noted in their response that the name needed to retain the word ‘white’ due to its approval as a whitening product by South Korea’s equivalent of the FDA.

Since then, the name has changed a second time, to Galactomyces 95 Tone Balancing Essence. This name marks a significant improvement over the second iteration because it does away with all forms of the word white or whiten.

How Products That Address Skin Tone Concerns Are Marketed in the U.S.

Beauty brands that market to American customers generally tend to steer away from those terms altogether, because they’re associated with skin lightening, which itself is part of our complex history of racism and colorism.

Instead, they prefer to use verbs such as brightening or correcting, which suggest that the product is effective at reducing hyperpigmentation from acne scars, sun spots, etc. without making a lighter skin color the goal. For example, the Japanese-inspired brand Tatcha sells a Vitamin C-based brightening serum (brightening and Vitamin C go hand-in-hand when it comes to beauty marketing). American brand Kiehl’s sells a moisturizing cream under the name of Clearly Corrective.

Avoid Going Viral for the Wrong Reasons

American consumers are increasingly conscious of issues related to skin color in the beauty industry. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line, launched in 2017, was celebrated for its wide range of shades, while other brands are routinely criticized for narrow shade ranges. Meanwhile, U.S.-based multinational companies have been called out on social media for offering skin-bleaching products in other countries, even if the same products aren’t available stateside.

Millennial beauty consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere — and their even-younger Gen Z counterparts — are hyper-conscious of potentially offensive terminology and imagery, and don’t hesitate to let brands know what they think by sharing their feelings on social media.

At the time, COSRX’s blunder circulated mainly within a small community of consumers who purchase skin care products directly from Korea. However, ill-chosen verbiage has the potential to go viral, spreading across social networks such as Facebook and Twitter and exposing beauty brands to consumer ire.

Reddit users, reluctant to use either of the first two iterations of the product’s name, often referred to it as “COSRX racism essence” —not an adjective that any brand wants yoked to their company name.

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