SEOUL, Dec. 6 (Yonhap) -- What if you could carry a can containing germ killers, stress relievers, memory aides and -- allegedly -- sex performance enhancers in your pocket? What if that product were 100 percent natural? And what if it were delivered in a waft of pure oxygen?
The good news? The product exists, and its benefits are backed by scientific research. The bad news? You are unlikely to see it in your local supermarket any time soon because it is being marketed, not by a giant conglomerate, but by a lone entrepreneur.
Meet Fiona Bae, a vivacious 37-year-old who is working to program an entirely new product category into the consumer mind-space on a minimal budget. Her marketing challenge is shared by ventures nationwide, who struggle to gain business traction in Korea's top-heavy economy.
Still, Bae has plenty of marketing nous. She cut her teeth at international public relations agency Edelman before heading up international media relations at trend-setting Hyundai Card/Hyundai Capital. Last year, she left Hyundai to establish her own agency.
Today, in addition to her day job, she is focused on a product co-invented by her father -- Pure02.
Fiona Bae is hoping to breathe fresh life into Korean lungs. (Photos courtesy of Andrew Salmon)
"It is basically pure oxygen, with essential oil from trees," said Bae, hefting a white, 200ml aerosol container. "The concept was birthed by a scientist, Kang Ha-kyung at the Korea Forestry Institute, who specializes in the healing power of trees."
Given that "trees can't run from attack by viruses or insects," they waft natural scents as a self-defense mechanism. These scents, or phytoncides, have various beneficial properties. Kang worked out how to distill essential oils from tree trunks but was unsure how to package the result, so enlisted Bae's father, businessmen Bae Jong-il.
"My father was a chemical engineering major and had the ambition of inventing and merchandizing something," Bae said. Kang and Bae spent two years in the lab, working on delivery mediums for the tree oils. Creams in plastic compacts were one early concept.
Eventually, the two settled on pulp imbued with essential oils. The pulp was manufactured into lozenges that latch over the spray valve of an oxygen can, and voila, a new product was born. When it came to marketing, the pair decided to "keep it in the family" and recruited Fiona Bae.
She spent months with design and packaging experts, as early cans "looked like insecticide." PureO2's can is pure white, with minimal lettering, "chic and minimalistic," Bae says. It hit the market in summer 2011.
Distribution is via online stores such as G Market and Auction, where 100-200 cans, priced at 14,700 won (US$13.56), sell per month. More recently, offline store Urban Space in posh Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul, has started carrying it, as has Boons, a premium drugstore.
The product synchs with current marketing buzz. "People have moved from 'well-being' to 'inner beauty,'" Bae said. "Koreans are obsessed with looking good, they use high-end cosmetics, but the trend is moving to things you eat and drink -- and inhale."
She hopes to win product visibility via Korea's best-looking citizens, but celebrity endorsements are hugely expensive, and agencies charge millions of won to insert commercial products into soap operas. To get around this, Bae has been giving sample cans, free, to celebrity photography studios.
"Idols do all-night photo sessions, they get tired and stressed, and we hear they really like the product," she said. She hopes stars will be snapped, holding the cans, by paparazzi.
Bae's PR expertise has granted media exposure. One magazine editor dubbed PureO2 "the killer app of 'inner beauty' products," as it purportedly cleanses the body while reducing stress, an enemy of good skin. Moreover, it represents another buzz phrase, "pure natural" as its propellant is oxygen, not greenhouse gases.
Fiona Bae stands at the entrace to her PR company, fionabae, in summer 2012 set at the heart of Bukcheon, Seoul's traditional district.
The challenge is sales. "People see it as fun, it's easy to get people interested, but it's difficult to get them to open their wallets," Bae mused. "But it took a while to get people to buy bottled water."
Her exposure to men's magazines has suggested another sales point. "Beauty products for men are huge, Korean men are really into grooming," she said. "But in the West, oxygen cans are used to enhance athletic performance, so we can sell to gyms."
A male-specific version -- an all-black can mounting a stronger oil lozenge -- is on the drawing board, as is a collateral distribution campaign.
"Sex needs good blood circulation, which comes from oxygen, and the essential oil is good for relaxation," she said. "We can package a male version with condoms, sell it to boutique hotels and market it around Valentine's Day -- 'GQ' and 'Esquire' are very interested in this."
With PureO2 being, Bae claims, a memory aid, she is working on a scholastic version that students can zap themselves with prior to exams.
But however creative her marketing, there is no substitute for a large budget. And big money in Korea is held by the big boys, who are neither kind nor gentle toward smaller ventures.
"Chaebol takeover is a constant fear," Bae said, as conglomerates are notorious for copying small players' inventions, then out-marketing it with a big budget and privileged sales channels. She has some defense, however. "What makes us confident is that we did very thorough studies, so we have data," she said. "Even for a large company, that process would take six to 12 months." She is also banking on first-mover advantage, but knows that despite her patent, there are legal loopholes.
She concedes that if push came to shove, she is prepared to join bigger rivals rather than try to beat them. "If a big company comes along and we share the same vision, I am willing to sell," she said.