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Hallyu to the world: the incredible rise of Korean culture

Korean pop culture is in an all-time high demand

As we take a Deep Dive into how the pandemic has sped up the globalization of the marketing industry, The Drum looks at the incredible buying power of the Korean pop culture (Hallyu) audience and how something so seemingly hyper localised transcended borders to become the biggest cultural export the world has seen for some time.

Hallyu, Korean pop culture, is in an all-time high demand, with tv-series like Netflix’s Squid Game, Oscar award-winning films like Parasite and K-Pop stars like BTS and BlackPink dominating entertainment across the globe, from the US to the Philippines and Thailand to the United Kingdom. But what is it about these Korean hits that makes them so appealing to the Western world and beyond?

The Asia connection

There has been a deliberate government initiative to push the Korean wave to the world on a global scale, says Margot Peppers, Foresight Factory, consumer trends editor. An effort stemming from the 90s as a way to build Hallyu towards the world through media and music.

However, it does not come as a great surprise that Korean culture would be so successful considering the Western world has been obsessed with Asian entertainment for quite some time. In the 90s and early noughties, Japan had some of its most successful moments with Anime, Manga, the J-pop scene, and cultural hits like the Studio Ghibli, Pokémon, Ring and Audition.

But what Japan did not have in that time is what Korean culture strives on now, a digitally globalized world. “There’s something very accessible about it,” says Peppers.

“They [Japan] are still seen as offbeat, quirky and are cool to like, but it is not necessarily mainstream. Whereas Korean culture is very accessible and there has been such a push for K-dramas and stories that are rooted in Korean settings but have universal themes and archetypes that everyone across the globe can relate to. They are built on this accessible universality that has really resonated with people.”

Hallyu has especially benefited from global digitalisation where K-pop fandoms have thrived on platforms like Twitter.

YeonJeong Kim, head of global K-pop and K-content partnerships at Twitter explains that the success of Korean content comes from the dedicated, organized, and smart fandom culture that started from K-pop music.

“There is a huge community around the world that is centered around K-pop and K-content,” adds Kim. “After third generation, Kpop music acts, fandoms began to evolve into open global communities thanks to the development of SNS platforms. These fandoms radiate influence, and their explosive power has created synergy in the new media environment known as Twitter.

“Twitter has been called the “Holy place of Kpop” because anyone can become a content producer or consumer, start a conversation, or become the one who spreads new information. “

In recent years, we can also accredit TikTok to the Korean Wave. Jureeporn Thaidumrong, Chief Creative Officer, GREYnJ United expresses that active communication with fans through social media accounts for K-pop’s ever-growing popularity. “Group members are devoted to real-time communication with their fans from around the world through Twitter and other platforms, thereby quickly building a strong, authentic and close bond with them.

“The rise of TikTok (with a fan base from China as well as the U.S) has also had an impact and allowed the bands to cross borders and become global. Most have their own Tik Tok account with millions of followers and Kpop music and dance moves are popular to emulate - this has resonated

A brand paradise

Brands need to be jumping at the opportunity to benefit from Hallyu, especially as it resonates not just with Gen Z but also older generations. It is a truly global experience.

For Twitter, it is the place people connect to speak with their favorite K-pop artists and the #KpopTwitter community around the world. During the pandemic, K-pop continued to dominate the conversation over a 12-month period from June 2020 to July 2021, there were 7.5 billion Tweets about K-pop.

“This passionate community has proven to drive results for brands,” explains Kim. “Over the past 10 years, Twitter and Kpop have become a true dream team. #KpopTwitter's growth analysis shows how the passionate global K-pop community shares their love and connects with their favorite artists.”

Back in April, McDonalds announced ‘The BTS Meal,’ the ‘Famous Order’ launch blew up on social media which became the number one trend in the US and number two globally. Brands are benefiting from partnering up with K-pop stars.

K-pop bands engage fully with their fans. Whether that is addressing them directly in interviews, replying to a tweet, musicians like BTS would never forget to thank their fans.

“They acknowledge them all the time,” says Sandeep Dutta, vice president of insights at Kantar Group, “It makes them feel especially important and immensely proud. That is a huge lesson for brands. They must learn to express their gratitude towards the consumers and make them believe that their success, their growth, everything depends on the consumers.”

Over the past two decades, Korean culture has been moving across Asia and in 2020, GREYnJ United, Thailand launched a campaign with K-pop girl group Black Pink for their client Kbank. They saw a surge of more than 500,000 new accounts within the first four weeks and introduced a branded debit card with a successful one million cards issued.

Thaidumrong, explains that “Finding a shared message between the K-pop celebrity bands and brands is critical. The Kbank and BlackPink campaign was aimed at connecting with Gen Z – who account for one-third of Thailand’s population and are the age bracket that will hold high purchasing power in the future. The key message - empower your belief - was blended in between the brand message and the behind-the-scene success story of the girl group. It was the right approach for the target age group that K-Bank was trying to penetrate.”

In Spring 2020, SMART Telecom in the Philippines relaunched its brand positioning with South Korean actor, Hyun Bin at the height of popularity of the K-drama series Crash Landing on You.

Agnes Martinez, Chief Strategy Officer, GREY Philippines says, “SMART Telecom (Philippines), was one of the first brands to bring in Korean superstars as brand endorsers and we found having these Korean stars helped with brand awareness, consideration, and brand love.

“With the emergence of COVID lockdowns, the Hallyu wave just got stronger and broader -it was no longer a niche and quickly became mainstream. As people were stuck at home, this translated into more hours of digital entertainment and access to Korean movies and music.

“Since our client is a digital brand that leads on what is new in pop culture and enables passion points for their subscribers, we wanted to support their love for Hallyu. We included their favorite Korean stars in communications by creating specific Korean data plans, merchandise, and special edition kits (BTS), etc.”

The Kpop fandoms are huge and incredibly influential, adds Peppers. In the past couple of years, we have seen them mobilising online to achieve social or political goals, whether it is raising money for Black Lives Matter or hijacking racist hashtags.

“People expect to be active members of a brand and influence how products get made and where NPD comes from," she explains. “Korean cultural fans that have a lot of collective power expect to have influence over brands, culture, and the directions that they are heading. Brands need to heed just how much power they have and how much influence they bring to that.”

Kim backs up the idea that fans are also devoted to the causes and philanthropic activities that their idols support.

BTS recently accompanied South Korean President Moon Jae-in to the UN General Assembly, where they spoke about vaccinations and climate change. Kim explains that in order to support their idols, the BTS Army launched a new Twitter campaign called #ARMYvaccinatedtoo, where they shared their vaccination stories.

“The campaign trended worldwide and generated buzz from fans across the globe,” she adds. “As K-pop fans are a very engaged audience on Twitter, it makes Twitter the best place for brands to introduce something new.

"However, K-pop fans are very cognizant of brands who try to ride the K-wave for the sake of it without truly understanding or appreciating the culture and work, so authenticity certainly is key to winning the hearts of K-pop fans on Twitter.”

Crash landing on diversity

As we live in a digitally globalised world, Hallyu has been given the best circumstances to thrive. On the other end, Peppers explains that for it to continue there needs to be a consumer appetite for global content as well.

Within the Foresight Factory platform, one of the newest trends Peppers has seen from its framework is called diversify and decolonize. She explains, “This looks at how consumers want to see brands and companies, dismantling exploitative power structures, and amplify the voices of those who are underserved or underrepresented. When you look at media, part of this is about questioning, the sort of ‘west is best’ mindset that has really dominated much of global pop culture for the past few decades.”

Dutta adds that while western culture will always continue to dominate the media what is coming from South Korea is fresh and new. “People have become more interested and hungrier for diverse cultural content. And today people get so bored easily. They just want something different, and Korea is giving a lot of that.”

And it’s routed in bringing back old traditional values, Dutta explains. “The values that groups like BTS perpetuate like gratitude, respect and humility are something that the audiences are currently missing in their everyday lives. And the way it is presented is very modern, contemporary, and aspirational. People eat that up.”

With Netflix's strategy to really push out these global stories we are witnessing what looks like the beginning of the end of the domination of English in media, adds Peppers.

“South Korea is creating these Hollywood quality films that people really resonate with and Netflix subscribers aren't just open to this, they're actually seeking it out. They want to see those diverse stories and characters on screen and to participate in those different cultures. It's something that we'll definitely see growing as that trend continues to rise.”

The future looks bright for Hallyu, it is clearly not a fad as some may have thought says Martinez. It is a cultural phenomenon that has seeped its way into music, K-series, movies and now there is an increase in Korean technology, Korean cuisine as well as people learning the Korean language.

She adds, “In the Philippines, Korean skincare products are also flooding the market because everyone suddenly sees the "Korean dewy glow" as the ideal skin to have, and Korea is also one of the top travel destinations for Filipinos - influenced by their movies and Korean series.

“Filipinos are very 'personality' focused and tend to hero-worship their idols; the fans are loyal and will stick with them for the long haul - I expect Hallyu will only continue to get bigger and become even more influential.”

Peppers concludes, “How interesting it is, and how much richer the content landscape in the media landscape will be once we're open to all these diverse stories. Non-English content is only going to continue to grow but it is the strategy of focusing on a story that is specific but has those universal themes that really unites us and shows just how much we share across cultures as different as they may seem.”

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