The marketing landscape is changing and brands that want to build cultural capital can learn from the success of K-pop’s innovative global marketing machine, says Virtue’s Zoe Chen.

Inside Culture by Virtue is a mini-series that puts a spotlight on the emerging forces that are disrupting today and shaping tomorrow, championing a diverse range of case studies and opinions across Asia – the rising epicentre of global culture.

NewJeans debuted on July 22, 2022 and within a span of months scored three top 10 hits on the Billboard Global 200 with their new EP making its debut at No 1, edging out the star-studded Barbie soundtrack. No mean feat for a fresh idol group who went on to clinch global endorsement deals with McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Nike and Apple. NewJeans’ speed of ascent was nothing short of amazing but also the result of a well-honed marketing machine.

In a world where brands are being skipped, scrolled and left behind, the principles that make K-pop a global marketing machine could rewrite the rules and inspire brands keen on building cultural capital in this new marketing landscape.

Provocation 1: Use the power of mystery to create insider access

Nowadays, it’s easier to liken K-pop idol groups to the Marvel Universe than Maroon 5. Groups are designed around an entire narrative with constantly evolving back stories, inspired by mystical worlds and the real world, like K-pop supergroup BTS’s fictional universe, The Bangtan Universe.

These fictional storylines form the foundational concept for their lyrics, album art, photoshoots, music videos, merchandise and other activities, creating a world of insider knowledge. When combined with this generation’s love for playing detective, it creates a passionate community of K-pop “citizen sleuths” heavy in pursuit of these Easter eggs to unlock bragging rights and superfan status.

Fans decoding Easter eggs hidden in BTS’s music videos, short films, webtoon and songs

Typical marketing often feels the need to spell it all out for everyone. Brand films go on for minutes and social posts become mini essays. There’s a compulsion to say as much as we can before we lose their attention. Comparatively, K-pop chooses to under-communicate, using mystery to create an environment of insider access to get people to earn their way into the community.

Brand example: Honda

Beginning with the 10th-generation Honda Civic in 2016, Honda engineers placed various callbacks to Honda's motorsport-rich heritage in a place most would never expect to look – the underside of the centre console mat. There are currently five designs in circulation, each one a nod to Honda’s rich heritage in motorsports and tech.

What started as a hidden feature has turned into one of the most powerful ways to place Honda inside culture. With countless fan-made YouTube videos and articles written about the Easter eggs, fans became self-appointed spokespeople for the brand, helping Honda to gain an even bigger share of voice and credible word-of-mouth than its competitors, and its brand story continues to be shared many times over. 

Provocation 2: Get marketing to pay for itself

In the eyes of fans, keychains, albums and lightsticks aren’t just simple objects but rather gateways into the K-pop world, enabling them to fully immerse themselves into the complete K-pop experience. This is made possible by turning merchandise into creations that serve three core needs of a fan – insider knowledge, real-time participation and intimate connection.

  1. Insider access/knowledge: Fans want to know it all and K-pop albums are answers on steroids. Every album release comes packed with lore-driven content that feeds fans with insider information about the band and its members.
  2. Real-time participation: Every fan’s dream is to perform alongside their idol on stage and K-pop gives fans a chance to do so with concert lightsticks. When synced with the songs and fervently waved during fan chants, lightsticks turn fans into an audience of co-performers, creating a strong personal and shared experience with their idols and fellow fans.
  3. Intimate connection: In these fan-idol para-social relationships, fans view their idols as close friends. To do as friends do, merchandise launches are timed to members’ birthdays and group anniversaries, turning them into the ways a fan can celebrate important milestones in their idols’ lives.

Birthday merch release for TXT’s member Soo Bin

As a cost centre, marketing is often the first to be subjected to cost-cutting in this increasingly uncertain economy. However, in K-pop, marketing is a growing profit centre by using merchandise to feed the core needs of fans – knowledge, participation, and connection. This has elevated merchandise from something that brands often give away for free (cost) to something that fans clamour to pay for (profit). At SM Entertainment, merchandise and licensing revenue have climbed 67.4% year-on-year to 29.3 billion won.

Brand example: Liquid Death

More than 50% of people who buy water through Liquid Death’s site attach merchandise to their order. Mind-blowing for a punk rock-inspired brand that essentially sells canned water. As a small brand entering a crowded category, Liquid Death chose to shun typical marketing campaigns and got marketing to pay for itself through a series of buzzworthy and unexpected merchandise that feeds the needs of its community and its bottom line.

Liquid Death puts Tony Hawk’s blood on limited edition skateboards

From a full-length punk album inspired by comments left by haters, to skateboard decks printed with Tony Hawk’s actual blood and even a life-sized severed hand candle in collaboration with Martha Stewart, Liquid Death makes tangible punk rock’s culture codes of anarchy and rebellion, turning merchandise into symbols and opportunities to participate in non-conformity.

The brand even has a “country club” membership where more than 200,000 have “sold their souls” and email addresses in exchange for early access to limited edition drops.

Provocation 3: Embrace “unauthorised” creativity

Bootleg merchandise has risen from the fringes to take centre stage in K-pop fandom. No longer seen as inferior fake goods, fan-made creations are praised for their creativity and affordability on K-pop subreddits, with many regarding them as even more superior than official items. From “fan support” (free items by fans for fans) to full-blown brands or even entire fan-created marketplaces, fans are channelling their creativity to create distinctive entities of their own.

A K-pop fan sharing her fan-made merch hauls on social media

Fanfics, the epitome of unauthorised creativity in the world of K-pop, have also been elevated from a fan’s bedroom fantasy to popular sources of entertainment in the mainstream. Not only have they served as inspiration for hit Thai BL (boy love) dramas such as “Nitiman” and “Not Me”, but fans are creating their own mini dramas on TikTok by pairing their creations with idol footage and music, so entertaining that idols have become viewers and huge supporters themselves.

Such is their cultural influence that “Raining in Manila”, a popular song used by such fanfics, earned the most single-day streams for a Filipino song in Spotify Philippines’ history, turning a song by an unknown Filipino band into the biggest song in the country.

Filipino OPM band Lola Amour turning into overnight superstars

In a world where brands are shifting from dictators of culture to facilitators of culture, there is an imperative for them to loosen their grip on rigid brand guidelines and invite “unauthorised" creativity to enrich their brand world. For this generation, for whom creativity is their superpower, modern fan devotion is one of active participation and collaboration. K-pop capitalises on that, allowing communities to co-create, fostering a sense of ownership and personal relationship with their favourite groups, even if it “breaks” the rule book.

Brand example: Coca-Cola

Coca K-Wave is the first Coke to celebrate the infinite devotion of fans. The limited edition paid homage to fan creativity and their undying passion with a digital experience that places fans in the creative director’s seat, directing their own personalised music video performed by a K-pop super group. Enabled by AI, K-pop fans around the world could embed their voice, name and face into the “Like Magic” music video and produce a personalised music video that they can share with fellow fans.

The cultural capital of K-pop is undeniable. K-pop doesn’t just churn out the greatest hits but also progressive and innovative marketing approaches that defy convention. To create cultural capital of their own, it’s time for brands to start rewriting the rules for themselves.