A Brand Specialist x ARMY’s take on why K-pop group BTS is so successful
Ever wondered how K-pop group BTS took over the global music scene? Overtaking the Billboards, Spotify charts and even got themselves nominated for the Grammys, there’s really nothing stopping their record-breaking successes. Read on to find out how BTS is able to do this and apply them to your business’ branding.
Get it, let it roll! K-pop boy band, BTS, celebrates its 8th year anniversary since its debut on June 13th 2013. At this point If you’re asking “what on earth is BTS?”, you must be living under a rock. From the sheer mayhem caused by their latest collaboration with McDonalds (just look at the human floods in Indonesia, the dedication of Malaysian fans), you can roughly get a sense of the great lengths their ‘ARMY’ of fans go to in support of their idols.
BTS is no doubt one of the most popular groups in the K-pop industry. The seven-member boy band has propelled the New Korean Wave (Hallyu 2.0) to greater heights, leading its growth to nearly 90 million fans worldwide in 2018. But what’s the magic behind the BTS effect that has led to its domination of global charts and the hearts of millions? In this article, we’re going to give you an insider perspective from a fan’s point of view (backed by marketing concepts) to illustrate the success behind BTS’ branding, and what you can carry forward in your own branding efforts.
The Origins of the Korean Wave (Hallyu)
Hallyu was first coined in the late 1990s to describe the global popularity of Korean pop culture in film, television and music. The 1997 financial crisis has led to a restriction in cultural imports from Japan, and officially beginning the era of South Korea’s cultural economy as the government embarked on a national agenda to strengthen local culture within Korea. With the box office success of South Korea’s first local big-budget film, Shiri, the potential of commercial Korean films took the central stage. Broadcast authorities started to ramp up production and distribution of TV programs overseas with subtitles in multiple languages, leading to a surge in demand for Korean cultural imports in China, East and South Asian countries.
K-pop was also garnering as much attention alongside the successes of Korean television programmes (or K-drama, as we know it today). Pioneers who ushered in modern-day K-pop included groups such as H.O.T (debuted in 1996) and S.E.S (debuted in 1997). The unique blend of high-quality music video production featuring the precise synchronization of vocals and choreography was unlike any other players in the music industry. The growth of which was accelerated came Hallyu 2.0 in 2007, where Hallyu took over the world by storm by making use of 21st-century modern technologies such as social media and streaming to amplify the reach and influence of Korean’s cultural products.
Just when you think that K-movement cannot possibly grow any bigger, the world was introduced to BTS. This group has consistently defied expectations by achieving record-breaking milestones for the K-pop industry, even earning the first-ever Grammy nomination for a K-pop band.
So, who exactly is BTS and how popular are they, really?
BTS (known as Bangtan Sonyeondan, Bangtan Boys or Bulletproof Boy Scouts) is a seven-member K-pop boy band under HYBE Entertainment (previously known as BigHit Entertainment). The members are RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin V and Jungkook.
Before the COVID-19 restrictions, BTS has been actively touring for their ‘Love Yourself Word Tour’ and ‘The Wings Tour’. Concerts were held in some of the largest stadiums around the world with almost 3 million recorded concert goers. The pandemic did not slow down their success. In fact, they beat their own world record with almost 1 million viewers for their virtual concert.
Over the past 8 years, BTS has built a massive cult following on social media with:
- 48.3 Million Subscribers on YouTube
- 40.1 Million Followers on Instagram
- 34.5 Million Followers on Twitter
- 31.8 Million Followers on Tiktok
- Over 25.2 Million monthly listeners on Spotify.
To fully grasp the scale of BTS’ successes, look at it from this perspective: A 2018 report by Hyundai Research Institute reported that BTS generates about $3.54 billion to South Korean’s economy per year, with $1.26 billion as added value per year — a contribution that was almost comparable to Korean Air, largest airline and flag carrier of South Korea. Their chart-topping single “Dynamite” alone was projected to generate about $1.43 billion of economic activity and 8,000 new jobs, according to a study conducted by South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. They are also the reason that one in every 13 foreign tourists visited South Korea in 2017.
How did BTS get this big? One word: Branding.
Put it in layman terms, branding is about the optimal positioning of your business to ensure that the relevant people think about your service or product in the way that you want them to. More importantly, good branding makes or breaks businesses by helping them differentiate themselves from their competitors and make a lasting impression on their audiences. By outlining the values that companies identify with, it formulates the brand essence that captures consumers’ curiosities and eventually, wins their trust and converts them into paying customers.
These days, celebrities have looked to branding as a powerful tool to reinvent themselves and generate new avenues to make profits.
Case in point: Fenty Beauty’s Branding Strategy
Take influential Barbadian singer/actress Rihanna, who founded cosmetics brand Fenty Beauty in 2017. In her own words, the brand was created “for everyone, for women of all shades, personalities, attitudes, cultures and race.” Fenty has developed over 50 shades of formulas for a range of skin types, particularly those who have been traditionally hard-to-match. In doing so, Rihanna has branded her business out of creating makeup that is accessible for women everywhere.
Fenty Beauty has revolutionised the beauty industry by making inclusivity and diversity its brand. And when you look at the numbers, it seems like consumers are buying into its narrative as well. In its first 40 days, it achieved US$100 million in sales. Within 2 months of its launch, it was named one of the best inventions of 2017 by TIME magazine.
Beauty brands have since hopped on the bandwagon with inclusive makeup, examples include Revlon’s new line called ‘Flesh with 40 shades of foundation’ and CoverGirl’s new liquid foundation line with 40 shades called ‘TrueBlend Matte Made’.Yet, we will remember Fenty as the brand that built diversity as the central value for its products and reason for being.
Breaking Down the 3 Ingredients of BTS’ Brand Identity
For those who have not caught the BTS fever, it’s probably difficult to grasp exactly what’s the big deal with these seven boys. Let’s break down (from an ARMY/Brand Strategist’s perspective) how BTS positioned themselves from the values that ground them and how their strategic brand identity has led them to accomplish groundbreaking successes worldwide.
1. Relatable Brand Narrative
BTS’ origins tell a classic David and Goliath tale. A dark horse who came from humble beginnings, they debut under a ‘no-name company’ hidden in the shadows of K-Pop industry’s ‘Big 3’, (YG, SM and JYP Entertainment).
As an underdog, BTS defined their own standard of excellence by focusing on their priorities and expectations instead of others. Since their debut, they have been candid about their uphill climb to make it in the competitive K-pop scene. Through the obstacles and detours, they were spurred by the belief in their capabilities and grounded by values they refuse to compromise. Along the way, their relatable narrative and infectious passion spoke to the masses. Their efforts — a shock to many — eventually led them to win their very first major award, known as the ‘Daesang Award (Grand Prize) in 2016’s Melon Music Award for the Best Album of the Year Category and a Grammy nomination in 2020 for ‘Best Pop Duo/Group Performance’, the first for a K-pop group.
People tend to gravitate towards supporting underdogs as it arouses a sense of fairness and justice. By humanising their struggles to find success in the industry, they were able to garner a cult following to support their brand. What’s more, even as they enjoyed meteoric successes, BTS maintains a refreshing humility. Their ability to stay grounded despite the fame and popularity unparalleled to any artist in South Korean history cements their personal branding as someone people can relate to.
2. Authentic Branding
Consumers today are looking out for real relationships when they decide to engage with a brand. Brands that are genuine are timeless, and consumers react positively to them as they look to these brands to be consistent and honest. Brand authenticity presents itself in many forms: they have an uncompromising set of values they adhere to, they are motivated by responsibility and integrity and above all, they are true to themselves — and consumers know that.
Artists in the entertainment industry usually have a persona they want to portray to the fans. However, BTS are all about breaking those walls and keeping it real through voicing out on the issues they believe in. BTS’ artistic expression in their craft features powerful narratives that they have drawn from their own personal experiences and struggles.
Common themes include self-love, mental health and empowerment. In the local context, they have also weaved in their commentary about South Korea’s social and political issues into their music — prominent examples of which include critiquing South Korea’s education system (hear “No More Dream” and “N.O”) and socio-economic hierarchies (hear “Silver Spoon” and “Am I Wrong”). Being able to be candid about their vulnerability builds a genuine connection between their fans and themselves, where they are able to seek refuge and comfort in their music.
They have taken this a step further by actively making contributions to countless social causes. In 2017, they launched an anti-violence campaign in partnership with United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The ‘Love Yourself’ Campaign aimed to advocate against violence towards children and teenagers around the world through music. This campaign has accumulated a total amount of US$2.98 million globally, with a participation from 11,811,497 #BTSLoveMyself Hashtags that helped adolescents around the world to open up about their personal experiences.
During the height of protests in 2020 over the murder of George Floyd’s murder, the band made use of their Twitter as a platform to speak out against racial prejudice and violence. BTS and their management company, Big Hit Entertainment, committed $1 million dollars to the Black Lives Matter movement. This figure was later matched by another $1 million made by the collective efforts from the ARMY, who encouraged each other to support their cause through various initiatives, including a compiled card that listed places to donate to.
Talking politics is usually a taboo in the entertainment industry even outside of Korea, which is already a fairly conservative country. Beyond their careers and musical endeavours, BTS are vocal about taking a stance on sociopolitical issues. In recognise the power they have in making actionable change, they do not shy away from touchy topics — keeping it real when it comes to mobilising their influence to encourage others to do good on a scale that is unprecedented.
Despite what started out initially as a ‘business relationship’, members within the band are actual life-long friends who look out for one another. Many within the industry describe these boys as kind, humble and exceptionally lovable. Coming from different backgrounds, their expression of care and concern in their friendships within the group (eg: gifting letters, gifts and constant concern for each other) fosters a greater sense of community which extends to their fanbase and those around them.
As mentioned earlier, BTS is known for being down to earth despite their whirlwind of fame. They never forget to give gratitude for those who have helped them in their journeys. They are frequently reported to help staff members and always remembering to thank the performers who tour with them. These have cemented their brand image as more approachable and trustworthy, opening many opportunities for companies who wish to be associated with their values.
BTS’ success can be attributed largely to their devoted fanbase, also known as ARMY, who have helped BTS break numerous records. The latest to add to their collection is their new song “Butter”, which is currently the fastest video in YouTube history to surpass 10 million views in just 13 minutes.
The appreciation that BTS has for their fans is reciprocated throughout the years. They frequently post heartfelt letters directed at their fans and compose music that express their love and gratitude for their fans’ support. At times, they go above and beyond by learning the native languages of different countries they visit to better communicate and understand their fans.
In 2017, the band incorporated ARMY into their new logo to acknowledge the support that fans have given during their ongoing journey. The thought behind the band’s double-trapezoid logo design explores the concept and symbolism of doors. On one hand, the BTS logo encourages fans to chase their dreams. When reversed, it becomes the ARMY logo, which symbolises the fans point of view of meeting BTS halfway. Combined, it forms a bulletproof shield that represents a bond that both parties share, as BTS’ illustrated on their Twitter — “us and the army becoming one”.
Tying this back to marketing 101, BTS is able to increase the customer lifetime by making fans feel valued and heard. They build brand loyalty by rewarding customers at various touchpoints of their engagement with the brand, consistently finding creative ways to engage with the fanbase and on a regular basis and a deeper level. This feeds into a never-ending cycle where regular fans stay committed and new fans are being initiated into the community, exhausting a wider network in support of their idols.
This is a 2-part article on what we can learn from BTS’ successes from a branding standpoint. Read part 2 of the article to find out how you can apply what you’ve learnt to build a strong brand for your company.