K-pop is the blanket term for music and musicians, known as idols, that make up South Korea's youth-oriented pop industry.
A decade ago, these groups were relegated to the far-flung corners of the US music scene.
Yet with the advent of YouTube, South Korean musical artists quickly gained prominence in the West, notably the record-breaking "Gangnam Style" by PSY in 2012.
By 2018, K-pop artists such as BTS, Red Velvet, Blackpink, EXO and Twice were charting on the Billboard Hot 100, and brands were taking notice of the astronomical popularity.
The phenomenon is known as "hallyu," a Chinese term that literally translates as "Korean Wave," and ecompasses everything from music and dramas to online games and cuisine related to Korean culture.
Brand partnerships have a long history in K-pop as Korean record labels build up the personas of their idol groups through collaborations, social media presence and music and variety show appearances.
The transition to American stages was almost seamless. NCT 127, a boy band under SM Entertainment, partnered with Coca-Cola; and YG Entertainment's top girl group Blackpink was the face of Samsung's Galaxy A80 and signed with Pepsi earlier this year.
Arguably the largest group in the game is Hybe Corporation's BTS. The seven-man mega group has partnered with Puma, Mattel, Fila and Samsung, as well as being named global brand ambassadors for Hyundai and Louis Vuitton. The group even released a BTS Meal with McDonald's.
These groups appeal to global audiences excited to engage with their idols on every level, according to Brent Mullins, senior director of entertainment marketing at 160over90.
"Companies are definitely paying attention to the K-pop space, particularly when looking for talent with global appeal," he said. "BTS set a record for livestream viewership last year. It’s hard to ignore anyone that brings with them that level of engagement."
Partnerships with K-pop groups are more than a play for popularity. They pay dividends.
A day after Mattel launched its BTS toy line, the company's stock spiked almost 9%, and sales in McDonald's US stores jumped 25.9% in Q2 2021 and 14.9% on a two-year basis, just after the fast-food giant released its BTS Meal.
But what is it about these groups that make them such lucrative partners for brands?
It's the fan bases that make all the difference, according to Michael Fein, EVP of R&CPMK's strategy and analytics division, which is working with South Korean rapper CL and represented BTS when the group first broke into the US market.
"These groups are naturally doing the types of things that create culture," he said, which can be as simple as having the right hook, lyric or dance move. "But the machinery behind K-pop has mastered how to do social media, how to go viral and they're very close to their fan bases. Where K-pop goes, their fans join them."
These groups have had great success drawing an avid, and at times imposing, following.
According to a census conducted by the fan group, there are more than 40.8 million BTS Army members across the globe, and Blackpink has more than 20 million followers on Spotify. What's more, these fan bases mobilise to support their groups and fight for causes, according to Samantha Stark, EVP of PR and communications at 160over90.
"There is a deep sense of community with the fans as well, which can be incredibly powerful, even activate movements," Stark said, who pointed to the K-pop community’s role in the Tulsa Trump rally prank, which left hundreds of seats empty in a 19,000-capacity venue. "It was a combination of K-pop Twitter and TikTok that allowed the news to claim tickets and not show to spread so quickly."
In the summer of 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matters protests, K-pop fans across the country flooded the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter with pictures of their favorite idols and messages of unity, completely drowning out racist messaging for a time.
But it takes more than a devoted fan base for a brand partnership to be successful, according to MSL’s Jolie Egan. It's about messaging.
"We've seen groups like BTS stand for something, take action on social justice and put their funds toward causes they care about and believe in," she said. "That's really important to Gen Z and Millennials, who are their key audience."
Blackpink has donated to support single-parent households in Korea, helped with the 2020 Australian bushfire relief efforts and began advocating for the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, to shed light on climate change.
In addition to songs that tackle societal issues and encourage self-love, BTS became the first K-pop group to address the United Nations in 2018, has worked closely with UNICEF and donated to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Value-focused messaging with which their fans can personally connect is increasingly important in the stakeholder capitalism landscape in the US.
"BTS [is] not only beloved worldwide as 'global superstars' for their music and performance, but also play the role of inspiring and conscientious artists spreading messages of courage, hope and positivity with their fans, many of whom constitute our next generation," a Hyundai spokesperson told PRWeek. "These socially oriented, outward-looking activities of BTS represent their core values and strong will to act upon their sustainable commitments."
When a brand can authentically align its messaging with that of a specific K-pop group, they can be successful at connecting with consumers.
"The expectation of Gen Z and Millennials are that the people they look up to are people who embody their values, and when brands can connect with those people, it helps the brands connect to their audience as well," Egan said.
Brands concerned about reputation are in luck. Because of how conservative Korean netizens are, record companies have their idols maintain pristine images, even keeping dating out of the spotlight.
The biggest hurdle to marketers taking the K-pop plunge, according to Fein, is realising just how popular these groups are, even if they've personally never heard of them.
"For whatever reason there's a divide where once people know [K-pop], they get it and understand how big it is," he said. "But for so many marketers, they don't really understand how big K-pop is. I wish I understood why that is, but it doesn't seem to be slowing K-pop down any."