Let's be honest. These days you could stick the face of a K-pop artist on just about any product, and it would still sell out in record time. Such is their cult-like following, that you could safely bet that even a K-pop branded toilet brush ('K-Poop'), would smash sales records in the category.
In all seriousness and toilet brushes aside, it's safe to assume K-pop artists have done more brand collaborations than one could feasibly count in a lifetime.
In fact, they've been so prolific at them, that hugely popular K-pop band BTS even has a website
dedicated to tracking their many brand endorsements. Everyone from Starbucks to luxury brands like Gucci, Dior and Luis Vuitton are all queuing up to try and snag a K-pop artist to endorse their next product line.
From a brand perspective, it's a no-brainer. After all, tacking on a multi-million-followed celebrity invariably results in record sales.
Recently, coffee brand Starbucks demonstrated this 'K-pop phenomenon' when they collaborated with girl group Blackpink
on a line-up of 11 types of drinkware and six lifestyle accessories which not only sold out, but did so in sky-rocketing numbers. Within three hours of hitting online shelves, the entire inventory for Asia was gone, leading the Starbucks virtual stores to crash temporarily. The demand is huge, if not unparalleled. So it's little wonder brands all want a piece of the K-pop pie.
But by this point, is it just lazy marketing?
Fandom spending and the tapping into the ‘cultural wallet’
"K-pop bands are designed for commercial success," says Michael Patent, CEO and founder of Culture Group. "While the bands produce art in the form of their music, the core objective of their creators and owners is commerce."
Such is the cult-like appeal and worship by their armies of fans, that almost anything that comes within a certain orbit of K-pop stars seems to turn to gold. But what underpins and sustains this cult-like appeal of these artists and their almost unrivalled ability to sell out everything they lend their name to?
"Fan loyalty is the currency of the K-pop economy, underpinning the success of the industry," says Carbo Yu, regional executive director at Sinclair. "The consumption of commercial products is largely driven by fans’ emotional desires, surpassing necessity and any functional benefits the product may offer."
Yu adds that such marketing strategies that trigger fans' emotional desires have been proven to work over and over again, driving sales right away, and showing little signs of slowing down as long as K-pop remains a dominant force in entertainment.
However, creating that fan loyalty didn't happen overnight, it has been years in the making. Let's not forget the K-pop industry has the huge financial backing of the South Korean government whose view of it as a “soft power” cultural export has led it to become an optimised media machine. In 2021 alone, South Korea's Ministry of Economy and Finance set aside US$584.8 million
(696.1 billion won
) to promote K-pop culture.
On top of that, each K-pop artist has spent an immense amount of marketing effort to build and craft distinctive branding for both the group that they are in and their own personal brand.
"Through fan clubs, events, concerts, and merchandise, a profound sense of community and belonging has flourished among enthusiastic audiences," says Yu.
It's that profound sense of community, belonging and loyalty among K-pop fans that often translates to a kind of ‘fandom spending’ that Patent at Culture Group calls the ‘cultural wallet’.
"It’s different from discretionary spending which is driven by utility and a general desire for entertainment and leisure," says Patent. "The cultural wallet is driven by emotion, passion, fanaticism, and most importantly a desire to flex one’s love. When you tap into the cultural wallet, the upside is endless."
Patent adds that most K-pop fans will never see their favourite artists perform live–so they flex their fandom through their online behaviour and their wallets.
While the musical talent of K-pop artists might come into question and remain highly subjective, one indisputable fact is their bankability as brand endorsers. They are manufactured and moulded within an inch of their lives to be a product by the K-pop factory; a product that can perform as a human walking billboard for brands, a cash rope for the record labels and managers, and one that appeals to a young audience of predominantly female fans who are of prime age to buy into the hype without a second thought.
"The 'production' of K-pop stars is treated with the utmost discipline where meticulous planning is applied to every aspect from recruitment to years-long training and strategic presentation," says Shea Warnes, head of strategy, Dentsu Creative, Singapore. "This investment has paid off handsomely, and has catapulted K-pop to the forefront of the global mainstream, reaffirming a culture of perfection in the product, packaging and promotion."
The cult of K-pop: Is marketing partly to blame for encouraging obsessive fandom?
K-pop is not just an Asian phenomenon. It has gone global. Minsun Yu, managing director at TBWA MAL Seoul believes that the secret to K-pop's global popularity is down to the way the artists engage with their fans.
"They’re all adept at English, so their stories around their daily lives, thoughts and feelings resonate with a wide global audience, creating a strong emotional bond between artists and fans," says Yu. "While other stars can feel they’re beyond reach. Fans of K-pop bands, across the globe, have a deep connection with the artists; they feel like friends supporting each other."
And the fan base is truly global: "6% of U.S. general population listened to K-pop as of June 2022, with the fans skewing younger and more female," says Helena Kosinski, VP, global at Luminate, a provider of music and entertainment data. And in more recent studies across Europe and Asia, research from Luminate shows that between 6% (UK) and 14% (Japan) of the general population listen to K-pop on a monthly basis. "Fans are strong supporters–listeners in the U.S. are 48% more likely than average to purchase artist apparel, they are also more likely than average to purchase artist accessories, limited edition collectables, CDs and Vinyl," says Kosinski.
Book of BLACKPINK and BTS K-pop groups. Photo: Shutterstock.
But while the cult-like appeal K-pop has garnered globally results in big bucks for the artists, their teams, and the brands they partner with, at what cost does this fan worship come to the young fans themselves, not just financially but mentally and emotionally? When does fandom turn into obsession and wreak negative consequences. And do marketers have a role to play in preventing this?
"The cult-like appeal of K-pop among teenagers is driven, in part, by the phenomenon of parasocial relationships," explains Robin Lau, senior strategist, dentsu Solutions APAC. "K-pop idols portray an extreme positive image, inspiring fans with qualities they strive to emulate. However, this idealised portrayal can also have negative effects, particularly concerning beauty standards.
Lau believes that brands seeking to collaborate with K-pop idols should exercise caution and ensure that their partnerships are authentic and aligned with the artist's values.
"Prioritising a healthy and supportive fandom culture over commercial interests will ultimately lead to more meaningful and sustainable relationships between idols, brands, and their dedicated fan base," adds Lau.
Veejay Anand, CEO of Ironhill India, says that responsible marketing strategies should consider the target audience's welfare to achieve a balance between encouraging fan participation and preventing exploitative techniques.
"Aggressive marketing strategies and profit-driven approaches by some entertainment agencies may exploit the emotional attachment of fans, leading to excessive spending on merchandise, albums, and concert tickets," says Anand. "Marketers should know their target audience's age and susceptibility and avoid deceptive techniques that might promote unhealthy infatuation or consumerism."
Anand adds that marketing campaigns should highlight the positive parts of K-pop, such as creativity, variety, and cross-cultural interchange and that engagement without exploitation can be achieved. "Marketers ought to interact with customers in a considerate way that respects their emotional investment and steers clear of overt commercialism of the kind that encourages extravagant spending."
A win-win or just lazy marketing?
While not all marketing partnerships with K-pop artists have been successful, it's reasonably fair to say that most of them have. But, has it become all too easy for big brands with big marketing budgets to virtually buy success by collaborating with K-pop artists? Making it arguably one of the laziest routes to success?
"Ultimately, it is not lazy if the collaboration goes beyond a typical celebrity endorsement," says Lau. "It requires a deep understanding of the artist's image, the willingness to co-create meaningful content, and a commitment to matching the high production standards of the K-pop industry."
Pepsi x Blackpink limited Edition with Pepsi Aluminium Cans. Photo: Shutterstock.
Yu of Sinclair points out that celebrity endorsement is a marketing strategy that has been utilised by brand marketers for many years. "The key to success still lies on whether the brand’s personality matches the selected ambassador in order to cultivate the sought-after brand love and affinity among consumers, as opposed to a one-off marketing stunt."
And Anand adds that while associating a K-pop singer with a company can create interest and attention, more is needed to ensure success. "Fans may view the partnership as lazily executed marketing if it comes out as forced or unnatural," says Anand. "Instead of just adding an artist's face to a product, companies should strive for more imaginative and significant integrations, which will eventually encompass partnerships in product design, music, or narrative that are in line with both the artist's and the product's brands."
Will the K-pop bubble ever burst?
K-pop continues to enjoy astounding global success, and its international fan base is still expanding.
"K-pop's market share of all audio and video streaming in the U.S. has grown 73% in the last year–so the bubble shows no sign of busting just yet," says Kosinski at Luminate.
But Anand warns that market saturation may be an issue as more K-pop groups debut and the business gets cutthroat.
"Particularly when new platforms and technologies are introduced, consumer behaviour and preferences are constantly changing," says Anand. "K-pop agencies must be adaptable and change their methods to engage with fans effectively."
And as we've seen with boyband BTS, the required military duty for male South Korean residents might interfere with K-pop groups' operations and impact their careers. But all in all, the genre's influence on the world's music scene and culture strongly implies that it will be a significant force in the entertainment industry for years to come.
"Over the years, K-pop culture has demonstrated resilience rooted in its creativity," says Sinclair's Yu. "From the era of BigBang and Girls Generation, to the rise of BTS, Blackpink, and the recent emergence of NewJeans, the K-pop industry has consistently evolved, leaving a lasting impact on fans worldwide. Given the genre’s ability to morph along with entertainment trends, K-pop seems here to stay."