CHANGING CONSUMERISM IN SOUTH KOREA
Although South Korea is justly proud of its exemplary handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a low death toll doesn't mean that the crisis had no impact. As it has done in every other place on earth, the disease has accelerated trends, crystallised thinking and re-ordered priorities. It's changed people and society in ways that will persist long after it's gone. In South Korea, what this means for brands, according to in-market observers, is that you'd better be making things better, in ways both big and small.
From practical to deeper levels
One of the most obvious brand success stories of the pandemic is delivery of essentials, especially morning delivery services.
"Coronavirus increased 'non-contact' consumption," says Ann Lee, creative manager at independent agency Innored. "There are growing brands that can deliver services without face-to-face. For example, the delivery industry's growth of fresh food ingredients such as B-mart, Market Kurly, and Rocket Fresh by Coupang has changed significantly."
Convenience was a top selection criterion for Koreans consumers long before the pandemic, notes Jay Lee, senior vice president and MD at GroupM agency Essence in Korea. But these services have taken the delivery game to a new level in the last year, he says, and it's not just about daily logistics. Market Kurly, for example, delivers fresh greens from the farm to the consumer's door in 12 hours. And since no one's going to order veggies from one source and everything else from another, the company is winning the entire shopping-cart order from many shoppers, he adds.
While delivery without human contact was paramount during the pandemic, enhanced freshness and quality are timeless benefits that are likely to make consumers continue using these services once the pandemic is over. Innored's Lee suggests that this trend has "grown to a level that threatens the existing supermarket brands".
The pandemic has caused many people to look for ways to make life better by bettering themselves, and Korea is no exception. "Hobby services, such as Class 101, Taling, and Sumdog, where consumers can develop themselves at home, are also growing," Innored's Lee says. More people are seeking stability and health choosing to enjoy their leisure time with exercise or healthy cooking. Also, interest in non-antibiotic foods, vegan foods, and eco-friendly cosmetics beneficial to health is increasing, she adds.
Essence's Lee praises Nike as one brand that has smoothly integrated the consumer desire for self improvement into its marketing activities, with its content around home training finding a welcoming audience among people craving both exercise and some connection to like-minded folks.
The feeling that they are taking part in something is increasingly important to many consumers. "Consumers want to be part of the brand experience," says JM Paik, creative strategist at Innored. "Not just as a 'consumer.' They believe they could make the brand better. They want to be part of the brand making/developing journey. Whether their impact is big or small, it doesn't matter as long as they feel like their voice is heard and part of the journey."
Paik says more small, indie brands are emerging because they are "small enough to keep the real conversation going".
"Consumers are now seeking the value they believe in rather than just 'products,' and they are ready to build the 'right' brand together," he adds. "They started to realize their impact on the brands and want to make a better world with the brand, step by step."
Hansang Cho, head of the Beta Institute, a sort of think tank within Cheil Worldwide, says Koreans are entering a new phase of consumerism, which he refers to as 'critical consumption'.
This phase is developing quite differently from consumer movements in the past, he says, with boycotting, buycotting, ethical consumption, green consumption, fair trade consumption, responsible tourism, and many more elements playing a role.
This change was well underway before COVID, Cho acknowledges. But every social crisis "carries out roles as both disruptor and whistle-blower of the modern social system," he says.
"COVID-19 will end sooner or later, most of the human race will survive, and by then, we would not want to repeat the same nightmare we are currently going through. When the time comes, which part of today would we wish to have it repaired? Answers to this question will eventually become the most reliable indicator to forecast changes that will take place going forward."
As a result, Cho identifies the rise of a "new seriousness" among consumers. "For last few years, unserious culture was dominant in our society," he says. "Somewhat serious or grave issues were eliminated intentionally or avoided as much as possible."
COVID-19 made people evaluate everything in a new light. "Eventually, with the end of COVID-19, we will be more vocal about repairing our society’s big and small promises, regulation and system," he says. "Consumers will reflect on a bit too much unserious culture and turn attention to content that discusses introspection, deliberation, objection and self-reflection."
This change is already visible on Podbbang, South Korea's major podcast site, where 67% of popular podcasts are about current affairs, outplaying entertainment podcasts, which only account for 20%, Cho says. Likewise, comedy's share of IPTV movie viewing has dropped and ratings of soap operas and variety shows are lower than those for current affairs content.
"Even in variety shows, which used to pursue only slight jest and humor, now have changed to carry the seriousness of humanities and culture which could be described as 'variety show’s documentarization'," Cho says, pointing to TVN'a ‘Three Meals a Day’ as an example.
Innored's Lee agrees, saying consumers are looking for a 'healthy brand', which she says refers not only to physical health, but to brands that help solve health, famine, and social issues. "Consumers prefer brands that help the world at the same time as consumption," she says.