Psy’s Gangnam Style hit the Western world with a K-bomb back in 2012, introducing brands and consumers alike to the idiosyncrasies of South Korean culture. But its success is unlikely to be a one-hit wonder, and is also one brands can learn from, according to the man widely accredited to bringing the song in from the East.
“K-pop is pop – it’s just done by Koreans,” explained Kyu C. Lee, aka Q, producer and chief executive of Kino 33 Entertainment. His company works across Seoul and Los Angeles, producing and managing K-pop stars in the film, TV and music industries, and he personally brought Psy to LA after 'Justin Bieber's people' showed interest in Gangnam Style.
But, as Lee himself admits, it’s not strictly just pop – it’s pop grown upon a love for “perfection”. Three main labels all with a penchant for the word ‘entertainment’ (JYP Entertainment, YG Entertainment and SM Entertainment) incubate up and coming talent in South Korea like a real-life, less jovial version of Fame.
“A lot of talent is bred [for] six or seven years before they’re actually debuted into the mainstream market in Asia,” Lee said. “It’s a system where’s there’s a lot of healthcare, body care and grooming of this talent, along with the formation of vocal chords, dance choreography and what not.”
The result is squeaky-clean, picture- and note-perfect artists and groups such as 2NE1 and Bigbang. According to Forbes’ Celebrity 100 List 2016, the latter made $66m before tax last year – almost $11m more than the US’s boyband equivalent, Maroon 5.
These acts are the ultimate influencers in South Korea, and to some extent in China, Japan, Singapore and other neighbouring APAC countries where the K-pop scene is also flourishing. Korean labels Samsung and Hyundai have jumped on the opportunity to feature stars and dance crazes in their marketing, as have the non-native Uniqlo, Coca-Cola and Burger King.
Thomas Hongtack Kim, who departed Cheil Worldwide Korea in 2014 to launch agency Playground, recalled the biggest campaigns of late in the country: “Kolon Sports, one of Korea’s biggest sports brand – used the 'idol group’ of K-pop in their new brand ad campaign in 2014.
“Kolon devised the brand name "Move-xo" for its new sneakers and also signed up Exo - one of the most popular boy bands in Korea. The commercial film featured a synchronised dance by the group, with all the members of Exo wearing the new shoes. It was like a musical.”
This kind of ad may appear glaringly commercial and gratingly obvious to a Western industry, especially one still getting to grips with the art of soft, almost subliminal product placement in the realm of influencer marketing. But the beauty of capitalizing on what Kim calls the K-pop “fandom” is these artists are gestated in and often tightly bound to their record labels – mammoth companies that are out to make cash through sponsorships and appearance opportunities. And even if brands are subjected to the Western rigmarole of negotiating talent through an agent, the popularity of the genre can all but guarantee a weighty ROI.
For Western agencies looking to jump on the K-pop trend, Lee recommends an immersion technique: “You’ve got to come to Korea and Asia to really experience and learn how business is done. In order to flourish in that community, you need to learn their line of work, their way of business and how they strategise things.”
However Kim is cautious of over-inflating the K-pop bubble. “I have heard that K-pop is quite a big trend among the teens of the Western world - teenagers are eager to learn the dances and also sing along to the Korean lyrics. But all that goes up is bound to come down.
“Some brands might find themselves in big trouble if they are using K-pop only because of the popularity. The popularity of a K-pop group can be just a transient fad."
He added: "All brands would like to make long-term relationships with consumers, but the thing is that a K-pop advertising campaign cannot be the solution for that.
"People usually don't remember the brand - they only can remember singer's name and the song."